Quarter of Flint kids have elevated lead levels in blood, Cornell study finds

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

A quarter of the children tested for lead in Flint had elevated levels in their bloodstream which then prompted a litany of health and behavioral challenges, according to a study by Cornell University researchers released Wednesday. 

The study, which showed that one in four received a clinician’s diagnosis of elevated blood lead levels that it said was far above the average nationally and in Flint prior to the lead crisis, also noted that more children should have been screened for blood lead levels.

At least 244 children between the ages 4 and 8 were a part of the research.

In this Jan. 26, 2016 photo, registered nurse Brian Jones draws a blood sample from a student at Eisenhower Elementary School in Flint, where lead contaminated the city's drinking water after a water source change in April 2014. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio, File)

From June through November 2019, researchers said they collected and analyzed cross-sectional data on Flint children, self-reports of screenings of blood lead levels, and results and various potential water contamination-related health symptoms and outcomes.

The symptoms reported by the Flint families can’t definitively be linked to the city’s tap water, but "many are scientifically associated with bacterial and chemical contamination in water," said Jerel Ezell, an assistant professor of Africana studies at Cornell and a lead author of the study.

"Our methods allow us to say that there was a substantial uptick in negative health outcomes among Flint children following the water crisis," Ezell said.

The study showed that 44% of children with lead showed hyperactivity, 39% had emotional agitation, 29% had comprehension issues/learning delays, while 39% of children had skin rashes and 11% experienced hair loss. A child having elevated blood lead level also significantly increased the odds of experiencing adverse cognitive/behavioral outcomes, according to the study.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said children's exposure to lead can damage the brain and nervous system, slow growth and development and lead to learning and behavior problems, among other issues. 

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the Flint pediatrician who helped uncover the Flint water crisis by analyzing children's blood lead levels, said the Cornell study "reiterates the importance of long-term support for Flint kids and reaffirms our community-driven efforts to mitigate the impact of the Flint water crisis and holistically support the health and development of Flint children."

Hanna-Attisha cited the CDC-supported Flint Registry, which has enrolled over 18,000 people affected by the water crisis and just released its inaugural report. The registry connected residents to health and development-promoting services like education, nutrition and health resources and is not solely based on blood lead testing.

"It's critical to understand that blood lead screening is nuanced," Hanna-Attisha said. "Lead in blood has a short detection window — a half life of 28 days — so blood lead testing after an exposure like the water crisis may not be elevated because it cannot reveal historic exposure and thus people and government will be falsely reassured that there was no exposure."

Dr. Mona Hana-Attisha is the Flint pediatrician who helped expose the Flint water crisis.

Efforts "should be focused as much as possible on the detection of lead in a child's environment — water, paint, dust, soil, etc. — before kids are exposed, she said. "This is the recommended practice of primary prevention," Hanna-Attisha said.

The recent 2021 Flint Lead Free Report stated that "the lead burden in the environment of Flint children has steadily been decreasing with aggressive pipe replacements and primary prevention focused home abatements and screenings."