State denies hiding Flint data on rising lead levels

Jim Lynch
The Detroit News

State officials are denying new allegations of mishandling information in the Flint water crisis that has exposed residents to dangerous levels of lead.

The latest charges have been leveled by Virginia Tech researcher Marc Edwards, whose website reported this week that testing conducted by the state this past summer indicated a rise in lead poisoning among Flint children.

Instead of reporting the increase and sounding an alarm, Edwards’ Flint Water Study site contends Department of Health and Human Services officials “stood by silently as (MDEQ) officials repeatedly and falsely stated that no spike in blood lead levels of children had occurred.”

The researcher is referring to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and making the accusations based on his request for communications between city, state and federal officials during the past two years. Edwards has raised serious questions about DEQ’s performance in testing done to determine the safety of drinking water following the city’s switch to the Flint River as its source in the spring of 2014.

He led his website with the banner claim: “Michigan Health Department Hid Evidence of Health Harm Due to Lead Contaminated Water: Allowed False Public Assurances by MDEQ and Stonewalled Outside Researchers.”

A state health department spokeswoman said Thursday that the summer testing results were not ignored, but evaluated incorrectly. Lead levels in blood typically rise during the summer months for a variety of reasons before returning to normal the rest of the year.

“In late June and early July, we did a citywide look at blood lead levels,” said Angela Minicuci, a spokeswoman. “We saw what we thought was a typical seasonal rise and didn’t think it was anything out of the ordinary.”

While under the control of an emergency manager appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder, Flint switched to the river as its water source last year to save money. City officials complained for years about the costs of being a customer of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department.

They had hoped to use the river for a year or two until the completion of a new water authority in the region.

But when the switch occurred in April 2014, residents immediately began complaining of drinking water issues that included smell, taste and discoloration problems.

The situation came to a head in August and September when a researcher at Hurley Medical Center in Flint released study results showing high lead levels in the blood of children living in certain Flint ZIP codes.

“When the Hurley data came out in September, we confirmed their findings. ..,” Minicuci said. “We were not actively hiding our data. There was no intention on our part to do anything that would harm the residents of Flint. We just weren’t seeing the data early on in the same way Hurley researchers did.”

On Thursday, Edwards criticized state health and environmental departments’ officials for being less than forthcoming with important health data that might have alerted the public to the dangerous lead levels in the water months earlier.

He also said copies of communications obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests show a deliberate attempt to manipulate testing data to keep Flint in compliance with federal safety regulations.

Edwards questioned the state’s contention that the summertime rises in lead contamination recorded in 2014 and 2015 following the switch to the Flint River could have been seen as seasonal rises. Historical seasonal rises, he said, did not reach the levels recorded in the last two years.

“They had conclusive scientific evidence that the summer after the switch the blood-lead levels in Flint were higher,” Edwards said. “If it was a seasonal thing, it would have been (an increase) like any of the other previous years.”

A DEQ spokesman could not be reached for comment Thursday.

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