Jacques: Facts matter when discussing Flint

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News
Photos are of a protest due to the Flint water crisis outside of the Michigan State Capitol before the State of the State speech, January 19, 2016.

You may recall how comedian Michelle Wolf ended her controversial speech at April’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner. She yelled out (randomly): "Flint still doesn’t have clean water."

The irony was that Wolf made this claim the same month the state of Michigan stopped its bottled water delivery program in Flint after multiple independent scientists had for months determined the water was safe to drink, with proper filtration.

Facts matter. But the fact the city of Flint now has safe drinking water -- and has levels of lead well below many others in the state and country -- isn’t likely to deter liberal celebrities and politicians from repeating a narrative that furthers their own cause.

Nothing diminishes the government failure at all levels that allowed the Flint water crisis to develop and continue for as long as it did, exposing residents to raised levels of lead in their drinking water. Children are especially vulnerable to lead exposure, as it can negatively impact their IQs and behavior.  

Yet new research mitigates the alarming claim that Flint children were “poisoned.” 

A recent piece from two lead experts in The New York Times offers some additional perspective on the Flint water crisis. One of the authors, Hernán Gómez, is an associate professor at the University of Michigan, as well as an emergency medicine pediatrician and medical toxicologist at Flint's Hurley Medical Center. Gómez is the lead author of a study that charted blood lead levels in Flint children for a decade. 

Kim Dietrich, a professor of epidemiology and environmental health at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, co-wrote the piece, and she has done similar research on lead in Cincinnati.

The authors argue that labeling Flint’s children as "poisoned" unfairly stigmatizes them -- and isn’t an accurate account of what happened.

“The casual use of the word ‘poisoned,’ which suggests that the affected children are irreparably brain-damaged, is grossly inaccurate,” Gómez and Dietrich write.

The authors detail how lead exposure has declined dramatically since the 1970s, when the average U.S. child under 5 had a blood lead level of 14 micrograms per deciliter -- largely due to a prevalence of lead in paint and gasoline. By 2014, when the Flint water crisis began, that number had fallen to .84 micrograms per deciliter.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends treatment for blood levels only above 45 micrograms per deciliter, and no child in Flint tested that high, the authors say.

“We found that levels did increase after the water switched over in 2014, but only by a modest 0.11 micrograms per deciliter,” Gómez and Dietrich write. “It is not possible, statistically speaking, to distinguish the increase that occurred at the height of the contamination crisis from other random variations over the previous decade.”

Flint has received most of the attention, since the spike in lead happened while under state control. Yet many other cities in Michigan -- including Grand Rapids, Detroit and Highland Park -- are dealing with much higher lead levels in their children. Those communities deserve attention, too.

The national spotlight on Flint isn’t going away, with numerous documentaries and books detailing what went wrong. One of the latest books is from pediatrician Mona Hanna-Attisha, who rightly gained international fame after detecting higher lead levels in Flint children.

There’s no excuse for the poor handling of the Flint water crisis by state and federal officials. And the state should continue efforts to support Flint children with enhanced education and health care.

But concerned Flint families deserve to know the full truth.

As Gómez and Dietrich conclude: “Based on this more comprehensive view of the data, we are forced to admit that the furor over this issue seems way out of proportion to the actual dangers to the children from lead exposure.”