Doctors worry about bathing kids in Flint water

Karen Bouffard
The Detroit News

Some medical professionals expressed concerns Monday about a state Department of Health and Human Services recommendation that children can be bathed in Flint tap water.

Michigan’s top poison control doctor said parents should take care to limit the time children are in the bath and be sure they don’t drink any of the water — a point reinforced Monday by Dr. Eden Wells, the state’s chief medical executive

“The problem is with small children you really don’t want them to swallow the shower or bath water,” said Dr. Cynthia Aaron, medical director of the Michigan Regional Poison Control Center at DMC Children’s Hospital of Michigan.

Dr. Sharon Swindell, a pediatrician and lead poisoning expert at UM's C.S. Motts Children's Hospital, said: “Any lead exposure in childhood is of great concern, especially in younger children during important stages of brain development.”

Asked if she would bathe her own child in Flint water, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha said she would feel comfortable bathing an older child, but would take extra precautions with an infant. She said she would reduce the temperature of the water as much as possible since heat increases the concentration of lead.

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“Lukewarm water is probably the best,” said Hanna-Attisha, the Hurley Medical Center pediatrician who uncovered the lead problem in August.

She continues to warn residents the water is still likely not safe, despite Flint reconnecting to the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department. It was a warning echoed Monday by Gov. Rick Snyder and Wells during a hastily arranged press conference in Flint.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services removed a poster from its website over the weekend advising Flint parents that bathing children is safe despite elevated levels of lead. Department spokeswoman Angela Minicuci said Monday the poster was outdated and will soon be replaced with a more detailed fact sheet.

Critics such as Michigan AFL-CIO spokesman Zack Pohl were outraged by the nature of the poster titled “Hey Flint! It is safe to wash!”

“I’d pay good money to see Rick Snyder’s reaction if someone asked if he would’ve let one of his three kids take a bath in Flint water when they were this little,” Pohl said last week in a mass email.

Wells, a clinical associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan, said lead is not easily absorbed into the body through the skin — a point made in the now-removed poster. She said parents should monitor their children to make sure they don’t swallow the water.

“Bathing a child, getting them clean and getting them out is the best way to make sure they’re not drinking unfiltered water,” Wells said Monday.

Flint parents are unlikely to feel safe bathing their kids, regardless of the state’s reassurance, Hanna-Attisha noted. They are skeptical of any advice from state officials, who for many months continued to vouch for the safety of Flint water despite evidence to the contrary from residents, local pediatricians and the scientific community, she said.

“This community has gotten so many different messages. It’s been a mass confusion in terms of the public. It’s a mess,” she said. “Obviously there’s a huge trust issue, so people do not trust anything the state is saying.”