Flint, Michigan, is making headlines because of a shocking number of children who have been diagnosed with lead poisoning in the economically depressed city. The FBI is investigating the scandal to determine if federal laws were broken when the town began tapping its drinking water from the Flint River, even though the water is highly corrosive. Predictably, the lead pipes used to channel the water leached the dangerous neurotoxin, poisoning drinkers - mostly children - across the city.
The scandal has seemed especially hideous because the city could have so easily prevented it. Many outlets have reported it would have cost only $100 a day to de-corrode the water in the entire system (Tech Times has been unable to confirm an original source for this figure).The children of Flint have been the subject of the media's eye for good reason: kids are far more susceptible to lead poisoning than adults are. And the reason for that has to do with both their habits and their physiology.
While the main source of lead exposure before the 1980s was leaded fuels, children were already at greater risk even in their homes. Those who grew up in the 1970s will remember the lead scare. It wasn't until 1978 that lead paint became illegal in housing, and sellers were required to disclose any known lead paint in older houses (this law is still in effect). Before 1978, lead paint was ubiquitous in American homes, and children were prone to playing with (or eating) paint chips that cracked or tumbled to the floor - especially young children first learning to crawl and explore.
Even today, one of the CDC's top tips for reducing lead exposure is to remove any remnants of lead paint from the home. Twenty-four million homes still have lead dust from deteriorating paint. Lead can be present in soil as well, yet another reason children can have increased exposure (the CDC thus recommends offering a sandbox to the adventurous child).
Other potential lead sources include traditional folk medicine, which is unregulated and can contain up to 90 percent lead; some candies shipped from Mexico, especially those that contain tamarind or chili spices, recalled toys, and of course, water that has not been properly treated.
But the greatest risk comes from the child's own physiology. According to the National Biomonitoring Program, children can absorb up to five times as much ingested lead as adults, and even more if they are deficient in certain nutrients. This puts children in disadvantaged homes and communities (such as Flint) in an extremely vulnerable position.
Once a child drinks lead-poisoned water, her body absorbs the toxin, depositing it primarily to the bones, which store the lead and distribute it into the blood over time. Just one exposure could take decades to completely clear out of the body.
Lead is poisonous because it interferes with the body's nutrients, preventing calcium, zinc, and iron from doing their jobs. It also binds itself to regulatory proteins and can alter how genes express themselves. The results are disastrous: children with lead poisoning, especially those 6 years old and under, may have stunted brain development, the effects of which are permanent. Even the "lesser" effects are terrifying and life-changing for families: anemia, kidney injury, abdominal pain, seizures, encephalopathy (chronic loss of brain function), deafness, and paralysis.
Adults, too, can suffer greatly from lead exposure, though our threshold is markedly higher. A low exposure can weaken our kidney health and contribute to renal failure or cause miscarriages, while a very high level of exposure (say, that of someone who frequently works with stained glass) can lower sperm count or cause seizures, nerve problems, and the same loss of brain function experienced by children exposed at lower thresholds. Older adults may also experience hearing loss.
The medical fallout of this kind of negligence is so extreme that it seems cartoonishly villainous the city could ignore them in favor of sending poisoned water into the mouths of Flint's children. Surely, the costs the city will now face if the public wins its class-action lawsuit will far outweigh any original savings. But the children and families of Flint will pay a much steeper cost, one that will reverberate through their lives forever.