Flint Water Crisis: What's Being Done to Help Children Exposed to Lead

New initiative aims to help Flint children in the coming years.

ByABC News
January 19, 2016, 5:29 PM

— -- As the contaminated water crisis continues in Flint, Michigan, health experts said they are working to ensure the youngest victims do not suffer through a lifetime of health effects from the exposure.

Lead is a known neurotoxin and is particularly harmful to young children whose neurological systems are still developing. Early lead exposure can have a lifetime of consequences, including lowered IQ, behavioral issues and developmental delays among others, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In Flint, researchers found that the incidence of children with elevated lead levels in their blood more than doubled after the water crisis began, according to a study published in the American Journal of Public Health in December.

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician in Flint and lead author of the study, said she sees the emotional effects of the water crisis every day as she takes lead level readings in children.

"We have a community-wide trauma," Hanna-Attisha told ABC News in an earlier interview about parents' bringing in children to be tested, and seeing in "a mom's eyes" the uncertainty and concern over whether the children may develop disorders such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD.

"They feel forgotten," Hanna-Attisha said of the parents that she sees.

Hanna-Attisha and other doctors at the Hurley Medical Center in Flint, Michigan, have been monitoring lead levels in children for years, even before the municipal water supply switch was announced in March 2014 and implemented the following month. They found that 4.9 percent of the 737 children tested after the switch had elevated lead levels in their blood. This is a significant increase from the 2.4 percent of 736 children tested in 2013 before the switch.

As the water crisis continues, health experts said they are working to mitigate the long-term effects of lead exposure in the youngest residents, even if they can't reverse it. Hanna-Attisha along with others at the Hurley Medical Center are working with Michigan State University and the Genesee County Health Department as part of the Pediatric Public Health Initiative, announced last week.

The initiative includes cooking classes and an information pamphlet from MSU aimed at helping parents give their children food that will protect them from lead exposure. That's because a diet rich in iron, calcium and vitamin C "can decrease absorption and increase excretion," of lead, said Dr. Dean Sienko, associate dean of prevention and public health at MSU's College of Human Medicine.

MSU also plans to increase the number of people dispatched to Flint schools to support teachers, said Dr. Aron Sousa, interim dean of MSU's College of Human Medicine.

The initiative will focus on getting children with behavioral and developmental delays to specialists so they can benefit from early treatment right away, Sousa told ABC News.

A 2015 CDC panel on combating the effects of lead exposure suggested that early education programs such as Head Start or a high-quality pre-school program could help improve outcomes for children with lead exposure who have a high risk for developmental delays.

"That's the kind of thing that takes a little more time to develop," Sousa said.

These programs may be needed for years to decades as the true scope of lead exposure is revealed, Sienko said, noting that symptoms of lead exposure can appear five to 10 years after exposure, so it's important to get help to children early.

"It's trying to reverse what has happened here, where the insult has occurred," Sienko said. "One way to mitigate that is to have good development for that child to get them into education and stimulate things that are all positive things."

One major difficulty will be trying to determine just how many children were exposed to elevated lead levels and who is most at risk, Sienko said, noting that children are normally not tested for lead levels until they're a year old. However, a fetus can be exposed in utero or an infant during their first few months of life if their parents used tap water to give them formula.

Hanna-Attisha said her team is now testing cord blood, taken from a newborn's umbilical cord, to check for elevated lead levels.

A letter to families in Flint from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and the Genesee County Health Department advised parents to feed their children a diet high in iron and vitamin C, and urged parents to get children tested for lead levels immediately.

The Joint Information Center for the Flint Water Crisis did not immediately respond to requests for comment from ABC News on other measures being taken to combat lead exposure.

Elevated lead levels were found in the Flint water supply after the city disconnected from Detroit's water supply and began drawing its water from the Flint River in April 2014. It was intended as a stop-gap measure until the completion of a pipeline to Port Huron Lake as the source for Flint's municipal water.

But it was later discovered that lead from the old pipes had begun to leach into the water due to improper treatment of the water from the Flint River. And even though the supply was switched back to the Detroit water supply in October, the anti-corrosive chemicals that were used to stop the leaching have not yet been able to bring down the lead levels in the water, a state spokeswoman told ABC News last month.