In comparison, for Flint the 90th percentile was 27 ppb:
At 27 parts per billion, it’s five times as high as the level of concern, and nearly twice as high as the EPA’s already-generous guidelines. According to the researchers who ran these tests, the health effects of lead levels this high “can include high blood pressure and other cardiovascular problems, kidney damage and memory and neurological problems.”
Recall, though, that 10 percent of the homes in the sample had lead levels even higher than this. Here’s the highest lead reading in that sample, from a home in the city’s 8th Ward:158 ppm
That’s more than 10 times the EPA limit. It’s 30 times higher than the 5 ppb reading that can indicate unsafe lead amounts.But that 158 ppb reading is far from the worst one that turned up in Flint, unfortunately. In
the spring of 2015, city officials tested water in the home of LeeAnne Walters, a stay-at-
home mother of four and a Navy wife. They got a reading of 397 ppb, an alarmingly high
But it was even worse than that. Virginia Tech’s team went to Walters’ house to verify those numbers later in the year. They were concerned that the city tested water in a way that was almost guaranteed to minimize lead readings: They flushed the water for several minutes before taking a sample, which often washes away a percentage of lead contaminants. They also made residents collect water at a very low flow rate, which they knew also tended to be associated with lower readings.
So the Virginia Tech researchers took 30 different readings at various flow levels. What they found shocked them: The lowest reading they obtained was around 200 ppb, already ridiculously high. But more than half of the readings came in at more than 1,000 ppb. Some came in above 5,000 — the level at which EPA considers the water to be “toxic waste.”
The highest reading registered at 13,000 ppb.
The professor who conducted the sampling, Dr. Marc Edwards, was in “disbelief.”
“We had never seen such sustained high levels of lead in 25 years of work,” he said.
According to Edwards, the team retested the water with extra quality controls and assurance checks, and obtained the exact same results.When I decided to write this, I realized that our readers might question why this would be an appropriate topic for science-based medicine. After all, the effects of lead poisoning are very well known. Lead can result in developmental delay, decreased IQ, decreased hearing, and ADHD. The children of Flint who were affected with this will likely have behavioral problems, and lead exposure has even been linked to violent crime.
Besides outrage, what motivated me to write was a desire to point out how SBM interfaces with public health in ways not involving vaccines. Science-based water treatment is science-based medicine through its effects on public health, and, arguably even more so than vaccination policy, is a product of politics, which can lead to disasters like this. Everybody knows that clean, uncontaminated water is important for the health of the people using it. What’s not so well known is how difficult it is to produce. For instance, before this crisis, I did know that our state had an aging infrastructure. I was not, however, aware of how widespread lead pipes still are in city water supplies. Even though my bachelor’s degree was in chemistry before I went to medical school, I was still also blissfully unaware of the chemistry of water treatment, because that’s a rather specialized field of applied chemistry. I had no idea that there would be a big difference in the ability of water to leach lead from lead pipes depending on its salt concentration and pH, much less what needs to be done to prevent it from doing so.Here’s the even bigger kicker. Even using the Flint River water, the City of Flint could have prevented the corrosion of its copper and lead pipes relatively inexpensively:
Marc Edwards, a professor at Virginia Tech who has been testing Flint water, says treatment could have corrected much of the problem early on — for as little as $100 a day — but officials in the city of 100,000 people didn’t take action.It’s not clear whether incompetence or saving money was the imperative here. Whatever the reason, the city failed to treat the Flint River water, leaving it corrosive and able to leach lead and copper from the aging pipes used to transport it. As a consequence, an as-yet unknown number of children have been poisoned with lead, which is most damaging to the developing brain. This is all straightforward science. We know what levels of lead are safe and what levels are not. We know what the effects of lead poisoning are in children. We know how to prevent them. Chemists specializing in water purification know that corrosive water placed in old copper and lead pipes will leach lead and copper out of them. They even know how to treat the water to prevent this leaching! Yet that wasn’t done.
Now we will now be forced to use science-based medicine to treat potentially thousands of children for lead poisoning and science to try to fix the problems caused by this colossal failure of science-based public policy. Worse, it’s still going on, as The Guardian just reported on Friday that water authorities across the US are systematically distorting water tests to downplay the amount of lead in samples.
As I think about that, seeing the Governor throwing mid-level bureaucrats under the bus and other politicians saying that the Flint water crisis is a hoax does not give me confidence in how this crisis will ultimately turn out or that the aging infrastructure that allows such a catastrophe to occur will be fixed any time soon.