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Health officials: Flint water might have caused rashes

Jim Lynch and Jacob Carah
The Detroit News

Flint — State and federal health officials have concluded the improperly treated river water provided to Flint over an 18-month period beginning in April 2014 “might” have been behind the skin problems and hair loss reported by many residents.

A coalition of researchers released findings Tuesday of a months-long investigation initiated earlier this year that included a survey of 390 people with active rashes or hair loss. With a goal of understanding the science behind resident complaints, the study did not rule out the city’s drinking water as the cause of rashes widespread in the city while the Flint River served as the source.

“The (research team) ... found evidence supporting Flint residents’ concern that water from the Flint River might have led to skin problems,” said Dr. Nicole Lurie, who is the assistant secretary for preparedness and response with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “Fortunately, water samples from the city’s current water did not show metals and minerals at levels that would cause or make rashes worse.”

In October, after researchers discovered the presence of high lead levels in city water, as well as in blood samples taken from local children, Flint returned to its traditional water supplier, the Detroit-based Great Lakes Water Authority.

An analysis of water quality data from April 2014 to October 2015 “found that the pH, chlorine and water hardness levels fluctuated and were, at times, higher during that period and might have led to rashes,” stated a joint press release issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control.

“Rashes that developed then might have been made worse by mental and physical stress and changes in personal care routines (showering, bathing, use of harsh soaps, and topical treatments) in response to concerns about the water, as well as cold/dry winter weather, lack of treatment and other factors.”

Elevated levels of pH, chlorine and water hardness are “factors that can be associated with skin dryness and irritation.”

Flint dermatologist Walter Barkey, second from right, said: “Stress might be particularly problematic for residents who chose to bathe less.”

Lurie, however, was quick to add: “We cannot definitively say that these are related to skin rashes of participants because the samples we have are not from when the system was on Flint River water.”

Investigators acknowledged there have been reports of rashes that developed after Flint returned to the GLWA and resumed getting water properly treated to combat contamination.

“The city’s current water supply, sourced from Lake Huron, does not contain metals and minerals known to be associated with skin problems,” the joint statement reads. “In addition, nothing has been identified in the current water supply that could cause hair loss.”

Tuesday’s announcement, while not providing a definitive causal link, will likely be welcomed by many Flint residents. The city’s long-running water crisis began in earnest after the switch from the Detroit water system in April 2014. Widespread complaints about the water’s taste, coloring and smell soon led to reports of skin and hair issues.

But it would be roughly 17 months before any definitive steps were taken to rectify the situation.

“The findings of the investigation validate many of the concerns expressed,” Flint Mayor Karen Weaver said in a statement Tuesday. “Now, residents have access to the care they need to ensure any new or unresolved rashes are treated.”

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the Hurley Medical Center researcher who first identified high levels of blood in Flint children, noted the difficulties inherent in determining what led to increased complaints of hair loss and rashes.

“The untreated corrosive Flint water unleashed an arsenal of skin irritants which impacted the daily life of many Flint families,” she said in an email response to questions. “It’s almost impossible to prove which irritants were responsible for each person and every person reacts differently. However, the most important thing is to go to a health care provider with any ongoing concerns and for potential management.”

Federal and state researchers began with a pool of 429 residents. Of that group:

■390, or 91 percent were interviewed.

■213, or 55 percent, had their homes water tested.

■122, or 31 percent, were evaluated by a dermatologist, with 80 percent of those participants classified as having skin conditions possibly related to water exposure.

■77 percent noted tap water changes that coincided with the onset of their symptoms.

Another finding of the study was the high level of stress Flint residents have been under for spending more than two years without a reliable source of drinking water in their homes. State health officials continue to recommend the use of bottled and filtered water.

“Stress is one of the most important things in terms of a problem for rashes,” said Dr. Walter Barkey, a Flint dermatologist who assisted with the research. “Stress was a main concern for many people we saw.”

Barkey added stress might be particularly problematic for residents who chose to bathe less, calling it a “perfect storm of things that happened.”

“I think it partially explains why people still might have rashes,”he said.

Not everyone is as sure of the water’s safety. Minerva Witt, a 65-year-old grandmother attending the press conference, was not convinced by officials’ answers. Her granddaughter continues to experience persistent hair loss and hates to bathe. The hair loss began two years ago.

“No, (the water) has not gotten better,” Witt said. “One spot might get better and then another spot shows up ... we’ve been to the dermatologist, and she is taking a medication that is very expensive, and they say it’s alopecia (areata, a hair-loss condition).”

Nina Arthur was never 100 percent certain what the cause of her clients’ hair issues were. As the owner of Nina’s Hair Care in Flint, however, she opted not to take any chances. She increased her use of charcoal shampoos — believed to be able to draw toxins out of hair.

Hearing of Tuesday’s announcement, Arthur was not surprised. But she is still not certain what to believe.

“I guess I believe there is the strong possibility that there was a connection,” she said. “I really don’t know though. I guess I’m still kind of evaluating the situation.”

JLynch@detroitnews.com

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