As a consultant dietitian, I have worked with an agency in the Flint, Michigan area specializing in lead contamination and diet. My responsibilities include counseling residents over 60 and group instruction with those who have been affected by the water crisis and are below a specified income threshold.
I received a referral from one of the social workers at the agency whom I work with to conduct a home visit for a lady in her sixties. She lived alone, doesn’t have transportation, and has been newly diagnosed as having type ll diabetes. As I typed in the address to my GPS, I knew the area well as I had been there before. It was a large apartment complex in the middle of Flint, Michigan. It was my least favorite part of Flint. The building was dark and in disrepair. You had to buzz the resident at the doors when you reached the entrance because they were locked. The buttons were covered in dirt and grease, and I wasn’t sure if they worked. I tried, anyway. After waiting for about a minute, Sarah (not her real name) answered and opened the doors to let me into the complex. The elevators were only about 20 feet from the entrance, but I passed them. I never take the elevators in Flint. The buildings were old, some had severe pest problems, and I was never sure if they worked correctly. The nagging fear that I might get stuck on one of them prompted me to take the stairs, no matter how many floors I had to climb.
Fortunately, Sarah lived on the fourth floor, so I only had to climb four flights. I passed several doors, and you could hear the loud blaring of radios and television sets. The majority of the residents in this complex were seniors. Since it was the winter and very cold in Michigan this time of year, most of the people were home, and the hallways were quiet and empty.
When I reached Sarah’s apartment door, I gently knocked. Her door was brightly decorated with flowers and her last name above the peephole. Sarah opened the door and greeted me with a warm smile. “Hello Kim, come on in and have a seat.” She said as she motioned toward a little table in the corner of the small, spotless kitchen. On the opposite side of the living room, I saw 6 cases of bottled water stacked against the wall. I looked at the chair. I had been instructed by the agency not to sit down anywhere that had fabric on the seat like a chair or a sofa. There had been an infestation of bed bugs in the Flint area, and they can attach to your shoes or clothing. We were offered a small bottle of rubbing alcohol to spray on ourselves after we left each home to make sure we weren’t carrying any of the little pests. Colorful rain boots are what I usually wear when I do a home visit, so bugs don’t enter my shoes.
I sat down. Sarah and I chatted about her diet, diabetes, how she obtains groceries, if she cooks for herself, and if she had been instructed on how foods that can potentially limit lead absorption. She relayed to me that she just learned that she was “borderline diabetic” and didn’t realize that there was food she could include that would help her with the “lead problem in the water.”
Sarah had lived in Flint her whole life. “It’s nothing like it used to be.” She told me. She, like thousands of other Flint residents, was shocked and scared to hear about the lead in the water. Residents were worried about their health, their children’s health, and how they would live life without being able to use the running water in their homes. They questioned whether it was safe to shower with the Flint water or if boiling would remove the lead.
What the public needs to understand is how this effects some of the poorest neighborhoods in the Flint area. Many of the residents don’t have the option of regularly driving to the grocery store and buying bottled water. They may not have transportation, or they may not have the funds. They would have to rely on the contributions of corporations, churches, or organizations to either distribute or donate water.
There were “pods” throughout the area for some time after the lead was discovered. Flyers were distributed in the community detailing the days, times, and locations of pods where one could get a case of bottled water. As time went on and work was done on the pipes to alleviate the lead problem, the pods were discontinued, and the availability dwindled.
The Environmental Protection Agency’s current safe level of lead in drinking water is zero because it can be harmful to health at low levels. If a person is exposed over a long period, lead can bioaccumulate in the body.
Young children, infants, and fetuses are particularly vulnerable to lead because the physical and behavioral effects occur at lower exposure levels in children than in adults. A dose of lead that would have little impact on an adult can have a significant effect on a child. In children, low levels of exposure have been linked to damage to the central and peripheral nervous system, learning disabilities, shorter stature, impaired hearing, and impaired formation and function of blood cells.
Lead is stored in our bones along with calcium. When a woman is pregnant, lead is released from the bones of the mother as calcium and in turn, forms the bones of the growing fetus. It is more pronounced when a pregnant woman does not have enough calcium in her body. Lead can cross the placenta and expose the fetus to lead as well. Lead contamination may cause premature birth and reduced growth rate of the baby.
Adults exposed to lead can potentially suffer from increased blood pressure and hypertension, impaired kidney function, and possibly reproductive issues.
During the worst month of the Flint Water Crisis (June 2014), the 90th percentile water lead level was 77-98 ppb, a significantly more than the EPA action level of 15 ppb. Water lead and children’s blood lead levels also spiked back in 2011, well before the Flint Water Crisis. This spike may indicate that before action was taken to control corrosion in April of 2014 when the water supply was switched to the Flint River, elevated lead levels were already a problem in Flint.
There is some good news. Lead in water, lead in sewage, and incidence of elevated blood lead in Flint children are now trending downward as of 2019. The current scientific data has indicated that the effect of public health interventions, including enhanced disinfection, enhanced corrosion control, and lead pipe replacement has had a positive impact. Reportedly these corrective actions steadily improved Flint drinking water quality since the switch back to Lake Huron water in 2015.
Gaining the public’s trust is another matter. Having worked in Flint with residents for over a year, I have never spoken with anyone who would drink the water. I also work with other professionals in the Flint area, who will only drink bottled water.
The corruption and mishandling of funds by the community leaders working with the water crisis project make headlines almost weekly in the Flint area. People are confused and are not sure what to believe about the current state of their water supply. It may be years before trust is established again between the public, legislators, and government agencies.