Michigan state officials insisted that the water supply in Flint was safe even though they knew an unusual number of children had suffered lead poisoning, according to a scientist who helped blow the whistle on Flint’s water crisis.
Through a public records request, Marc Edwards, a civil engineering professor at Virginia Tech, uncovered a July 2015 memo warning of elevated lead levels in Flint kids’ blood.
An internal report from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services warned that lead poisoning rates “were higher than usual for children under age 16 living in the City of Flint during the months of July, August and September, 2014.”
In April 2014, city and state officials switched Flint’s water source from Detroit’s water system to the Flint River, immediately prompting citizen complaints about tap water quality.
Edwards led a team that conducted its own analysis of Flint’s water, reporting high lead levels in early September of this year. Brad Wurfel, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, essentially dismissed the allegations in an interview with Michigan Radio, saying the state’s analysis of blood data didn’t show any signs of a problem.
The government continued to insist that the water was safe until a Flint pediatrician with the Hurley Medical Center reported later in September that the water change corresponded with a significant spike in lead poisoning among city children.
However, the memo obtained by Edwards suggests the state knew about the lead poisoning weeks earlier, yet continued to say the water was okay.
“They discovered scientifically conclusive evidence of an anomalous increase in childhood lead poisoning,” Edwards wrote Monday on the website he created to track Flint’s water crisis, “but stood by silently as MDEQ officials repeatedly and falsely stated that no spike in blood lead levels (BLL) of children had occurred.”
Reached for comment on Monday about the memo, Michigan’s DHHS said it had made an honest mistake by attributing the spike in blood lead levels to seasonal variation.
“When initially looking at the citywide and county elevated blood lead level numbers, the increase appeared to be consistent with the routine seasonal fluctuation seen in the summer months,” agency spokeswoman Jennifer Eisner said in an email. “It wasn’t until the Hurley report came out that our epidemiologists took a more in-depth look at the data by zip code, controlling for seasonal variation, and confirmed an increase outside of normal trends.”
The July 2015 memo didn’t indicate definitively what had caused the higher lead levels in the children’s blood, nor did it show elevated lead for subsequent months. Other emails obtained by Edwards indicate that the data had been sent to the director of the DHHS, as well as to the office of Gov. Rick Snyder (R), sometime between July and September.
The county declared a public health emergency and told people to stop drinking the water in October of this year. And Snyder, who appointed emergency managers overseeing the city’s switch to the Flint River as its water source, has signed legislation returning Flint to Detroit’s water system. The governor also appointed a task force to investigate what went wrong.
Lead poisoning can cause irreversible health and behavioral problems, and children exposed to too much lead can permanently lose IQ points.
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