Lead’s Long Shadow: What the Story of Flint, Michigan, Means for All of Us

March 8, 2016
1:00 pm US Eastern Time

Slides & Resources

Speaker Presentations Slides

Dr. Lanphear: Low-level Lead Toxicity: The Ongoing Search for a Threshold

Dr. Edwards: Designing Sampling for Targeting Lead and Copper: Implications for Exposure

Dr. Hanna-Attisha: Flint Water Crisis

Tracy Swinburn: Economic Impacts of Lead Exposure and Remediation in Michigan

Additional Resources

Lead in Water Action Kits Now Available to Detect and Reduce Exposure
Healthy Babies Bright Futures Partners with Virginia Tech to Protect American Families

Healthy Babies Bright Futures (HBBF), an alliance of non-profit organizations, philanthropies and scientists, including CHE, is making Lead in Water Action Kits available to families across America so they can test their tap water for the presence of lead and take actions to reduce exposure. HBBF has partnered with Virginia Tech to offer an in-home kit that can detect most lead hazards in water. Each family’s water samples are sent for analysis to Virginia Tech’s lab - the same lab that uncovered lead contamination in Washington, DC and, most recently, in Flint, Michigan. The family then receives its test results along with a customized report that includes concrete actions the family can take to reduce lead exposure. 

The price for each test kit is $65, which covers the cost to HBBF including shipping the sample bottles to the lab at Virginia Tech and the analysis of the water samples. If a family cannot afford the full cost of a kit, there is an option for the family to pay what it can afford. Families may also choose to pay for other families’ kits. Anyone interested in ordering a lead in water action kit can click here.

Reveal News: Do Not Drink: The Water Crisis in Flint, Michigan

Mother Jones: Meet the Mom Who Helped Expose Flint's Toxic Water Nightmare

New York Times: Are You a Toxic Waste Disposal Site?

From the EPA:

Report: Economic Impacts of Lead Exposure and Remediation in Michigan, 2014

Environmental Health Perspectives: Low-Level Environmental Lead Exposure and Children’s Intellectual Function: An International Pooled Analysis

American Journal of Public Health: Elevated Blood Lead Levels in Children Associated With the Flint Drinking Water Crisis: A Spatial Analysis of Risk and Public Health Response

Vox: America's lead poisoning problem isn't just in Flint. It's everywhere

Vox: How lead can get into the water supply, explained in 5 charts

Great Lakes Echo: Flint Water, Detroit air casualities of enviornmental justice

Listen to Recording

Lead is a confirmed neurotoxin. Children are the most vulnerable to lead’s health effects, which can include a wide range of persistent and costly challenges from lower IQ levels to increased aggressive and antisocial behaviors. It is now widely recognized by researchers that there is no “safe” level at which children can be exposed to lead without adverse effects on healthy neurodevelopment.

Lead in the drinking water in Flint, Michigan, dominated the headlines recently when it was confirmed that residents of Flint had been drinking, bathing and washing in water contaminated with lead for over a year. In many cases, lead levels were found to be many times over the amount allowed under the Clean Water Act. Despite community members voicing their concerns for months, no action was taken to protect public health until mid January. Finally, a state of emergency in Flint was declared, and the National Guard was brought in to assist in delivering bottled water and water filters to all residents. Yet for many, the damage has already been done. Children in Flint, and their families, will now live in the long shadow of lead for years to come.

Unfortunately, this situation is not unique to Flint. Many other communities across the nation—primarily low-income communities where lead can be found in paint in older homes and apartments—face similar issues. Even if landlords provide residents information about possible lead exposure, it’s simply not feasible for most tenants to pay for the lead to be removed or to move elsewhere. For some kids, this means having a harder time learning in school. For others, lead exposures early in life may predispose them to juvenile delinquency or even criminal activities. Lead is even thought to have played a role in some recent high profile cases such as Freddie Gray’s tragic death in Baltimore in 2015.

This CHE Partnership call featured two of the remarkable people who helped bring the dire situation in Flint to national attention: Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician in Michigan, and Dr. Marc Edwards, a nationally renowned expert on municipal water quality and an engineering professor at Virginia Tech. In addition, Dr. Bruce Lanphear, a professor at Simon Fraser University and expert on the health impacts of lead exposure on children, provided an overview of the science on lead and why it continues to be a major public health threat. Finally, Tracy Swinburn, MSc, spoke to the economic impacts of lead exposure.

Featured speakers

Marc Edwards, PhD, MSc, is the Charles P. Lunsford Professor, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Virginia Tech. In 2004, Time Magazine dubbed Dr. Edwards ‘The Plumbing Professor’ and listed him amongst the four most important ‘Innovators’ in water from around the world. The White House awarded him a Presidential Faculty Fellowship in 1996. In 1994, 1995, 2005 and 2011 Edwards received Outstanding Paper Awards in the Journal of American Waterworks Association, and he received the H.P. Eddy Medal in 1990 for best research publication by the Water Pollution Control Federation (currently Water Environment Federation). He was later awarded the Walter Huber Research Prize from the American Society of Civil Engineers (2003), State of Virginia Outstanding Faculty Award (2006), a MacArthur Fellowship (2008-2012), the Praxis Award in Professional Ethics from Villanova University (2010), and the IEEE Barus Award for Defending the Public Interest (2012). His paper on lead poisoning of children in Washington D.C., due to elevated lead in drinking water, was judged the outstanding science paper in Environmental Science and Technology in 2010.

Mona Hanna-Attisha, MD, MPH, FAAP, is director of Hurley’s Pediatric Residency Program and Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at Michigan State Univerersity. After completing her residency and chief residency at Children’s Hospital of Michigan, she earned a master’s degree in Public Health, concentrating in Health Management and Policy, at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. Dr. Hanna-Attisha was an assistant professor at Wayne State University Department of Pediatrics and an associate director of the Children’s Hospital of Michigan Pediatric Residency Program prior to returning to Hurley. In 2015 she was the recipient of the William B Weil Jr MD Endowed Distinguished Pediatric Faculty Award from Michigan State University College of Human Medicine. She is also a faculty inductee of the Gold Humanism Honor Society, which recognizes individuals who are exemplars of humanistic patient care and who can serve as role models, mentors, and leaders in medicine, and also a faculty inductee of Alpha Omega Alpha, which recognizes and advocates for excellence in scholarship and the highest ideals in the profession of medicine.

Bruce Lanphear, MD, MPH, is a Senior Scientist at the Child & Family Research Institute, BC Children’s Hospital and Professor in the Faculty of Health Sciences at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia. His primary research has been on quantifying and preventing the adverse consequences of low-level lead toxicity. The long-term goal of his research is to prevent common diseases and disabilities in children, such as asthma and ADHD. To quantify the contribution of risk factors, he tests various ways to measure children’s exposures to environmental toxicants using novel biomarkers measured during pregnancy and early childhood. Dr. Lanphear also designs experimental trials to test the efficacy of reducing children’s exposures to environmental hazards on asthma symptoms and behavioral problems.

Tracy Swinburn, MSc, is former research specialist at the University of Michigan Risk Science Center and lead author of the report Economic Impacts of Lead Exposure and Remediation in Michigan, which compares the cost of four well-documented impacts of lead exposure­--increased health care, increased crime, increase in special education, and decline in lifetime earnings--with the cost of lead abatement of high-risk homes. The report was a collaboration between the University of Michigan Risk Science Center in the School of Public Health and the Michigan Network for Children's Environmental Health.

The call was moderated by Elise Miller, MEd, CHE's Director, and recorded for CHE's archive.