Hanna-Attisha: Any lead testing results in Flint kids underestimate exposure

By: - March 18, 2020 5:28 am

Protestors hold signs and listen as Dave McKellar speaks about the troubles facing Flint at a rally on January 24, 2016 at Flint City Hall in Flint, Michigan. | Brett Carlsen, Getty Images

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the Flint pediatrician, professor and advocate who was instrumental in exposing the severity of the city’s water crisis in 2015, appeared on “60 Minutes” with CBS Sunday to speak about her program for Flint children and what early lead testing results in her comprehensive study have looked like so far.

“There is no safe level of lead,” Hanna-Attisha told CBS. “We’re never supposed to expose a population or a child to lead, because we can’t do much about it. It is an irreversible neurotoxin. … It has these life-altering consequences.”

Mona Hanna-Attisha

In the study through Hanna-Attisha’s program, the Flint Registry, 174 Flint children went through extensive assessments to gain insight into their cognition, behavior and development — all crucial markers impacted by lead exposure, especially in children.

Of those 174 children, Hanna-Attisha said 80% were found to require help for some sort of disorder. Before the Flint water crisis, the percentage of Flint children requiring special ed services was just 15%.

That’s a jump of 65 percentage points.

But with this new data, Hanna-Attisha qualifies that any data like it is very likely an underestimation of the exposure, as she estimates that 14,000 Flint children younger than 6 years old were exposed to lead in their drinking water.

The CBS interview also notes that in 2018, the percentage of Flint third-graders who passed the state’s standard literacy test dropped 31 percentage points.

For those very young children, Hanna-Attisha has been adopting an unconventional method to determine whether they have evidence of lead in their systems: Baby teeth.

Hanna-Attisha: 80% of Flint kids exposed to lead in water have learning disorders

Analyzing the baby teeth of 49 Flint children with a laser, which “cuts through” the teeth to detect the presence of lead, determines when a child was exposed to lead and how much. This is because baby teeth grow a “ring” every day, even as they are forming in utero. These rings reveal what happens in the first crucial stages of a child’s development, which are also critical in brain growth.

“Lead in water impacts a younger age group. It impacts the unborn,” she said.

A working paper from health economists Daniel Grossman of West Virginia University and David Slusky of Kansas University released in September 2017 showed a big decline in fertility in Flint during the water crisis. They wrote there was a “culling of the least healthy fetuses” that led to a “horrifyingly large” spike in fetal deaths and miscarriages. 

The authors examined the babies conceived from November 2013 through March 2015 and concluded that “between 198 and 276 more children would have been born” if Flint’s water hadn’t been contaminated with lead.

‘We’ll scream loud’: Flint residents protest 5 years of water crisis

The Flint Registry, which was launched by Hanna-Attisha in January 2019, also connects lead-exposed Flint children to the services they need. She says more than 2,000 children have been helped in this way.

“We can’t take away this exposure. But incredible science has taught us that there’s a lot we can do to promote the health and development of children,” Hanna-Attisha said.

“If we cannot guarantee that all kids get access to safe drinking water not just privileged kids, but all kids have access to safe drinking water … who are we?” she added. “This isn’t an isolated story. This is an America story.”

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Laina G. Stebbins
Laina G. Stebbins

Laina G. Stebbins covers the environment, Native issues and criminal justice for the Advance. A lifelong Michigander, she is a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, where she served as Founding Editor of The Tab Michigan State and as a reporter for the Capital News Service. When Laina is not writing or spending time with her cats, she loves art and design, listening to music, playing piano, enjoying good food and being out in nature (especially Up North).