Children in Flint, Mich., had a 46% greater risk of having high blood lead levels after the city switched its water source in 2014, federal health officials found.
Levels dropped again after the city returned to its original system, according to an investigation by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that is published in Friday’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
“This crisis was entirely preventable, and a startling reminder of the critical need to eliminate all sources of lead from our children’s environment,” CDC National Center for Environmental Health Director Patrick Breysse, Ph.D., said in a news release.
Lead exposure can impact children’s health, academic achievement and behavior. No amount is safe but levels at or above 5 micrograms per deciliter (µg/dL) are considered elevated.
Problems arose in Flint in April 2014 when it started using water from the Flint River through an old system without corrosion control. State and local officials claimed the water was safe, but pediatrician Mona Hanna-Attisha, M.D., M.P.H., FAAP, was among the experts who proved it was actually poisoning children.
The CDC analyzed data on blood lead levels in children under 6 years old before and after the city changed its water source. It found 3.1% had elevated lead levels before the switch compared to 5% after the switch and before a water advisory was issued. The adjusted probability of having elevated lead levels after the switch was 46% and children ages 1-2 years were at highest risk.
Flint has since switched back to its previous water source but the Environmental Protection Agency has advised residents to use filtered water for drinking, cooking and brushing their teeth and called for children under 6 to receive a blood test.
Federal authorities have provided additional resources to Flint families including expanded Medicaid coverage and access to programs like Head Start. The Academy also has been working with pediatricians in the AAP Michigan Chapter as well as government and community leaders to provide assistance.
Earlier this week, the Academy released an updated policy, Prevention of Childhood Lead Toxicity, that provides recommendations on screening, testing, environmental assessments and advocacy.
“The key to preventing lead toxicity in children is identification and elimination of the major sources of lead exposure,” according to the policy. “Primary prevention of lead exposure is now widely recognized as the optimal strategy because of the irreversible effects of low-level lead toxicity.”