Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Elevated Lead Levels Detected In Some Michigan Children's Blood


In Flint, Mich., there's been a dramatic spike in lead levels in the blood of some children. Scientists are blaming the city's source for drinking water. Michigan Radio's Lindsey Smith reports.

LINDSEY SMITH, BYLINE: Flint's water problems began about a year ago, not long after the city stopped drawing water from Detroit's system. To save money, Flint began getting its water from here instead, the Flint River. But since the switch, doctors and researchers say cases of elevated blood levels in kids under 5 have doubled in some parts of the city. Lead can cause irreversible health damage, especially in young children.

DAYNE WALLING: It was not my decision. I raised a number of concerns about it throughout the process.

SMITH: That's Dayne Walling. He's Flint's mayor. He was mayor when the city switched from Detroit's water system to the Flint River. But Mayor Walling wasn't in charge.

WALLING: The governor has a substantial responsibility here.

SMITH: Governor Rick Snyder had appointed an emergency manager to run Flint. By law, Michigan cities in danger of going bankrupt can get emergency managers, managers who have all kinds of powers that elected leaders don't. And in Flint, they decided the city couldn't afford Detroit's water bill anymore. A new county system is under construction. But in the meantime, the state's bean counters decided the Flint River could do until then. But Virginia Tech's Marc Edwards says Michigan's environmental regulators should have known Flint's new water source was much more corrosive than the water Detroit piped up from Lake Huron and should have treated the water so that it didn't leach lead from old pipes into residents' drinking water.

MARC EDWARDS: So how on Earth this was allowed to happen or people believed it was OK for it to happen, I don't even know where to get started on that.

SMITH: In February, officials at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found lead levels at one woman's home that were high enough to be considered toxic waste. Edwards says that should have set off alarms for state regulators.

EDWARDS: And instead, what they did is they took action after action to cover this problem up and essentially leave Flint residents in harm's way. So at some point, what might be attributed to an honest, perhaps innocent mistake, it changed into something completely different.

BRAD WURFEL: You know, state government and the federal government for that matter - any government - can only make decisions on the information we've got.

SMITH: Brad Wurfel is a spokesman for Michigan's Department of Environmental Quality.

WURFEL: We'll also concede that we've been learning as we go. And so as we've learned more, we've changed path here.

SMITH: Emails show concerned federal officials asked the state if Flint was treating to control corrosion. State officials said yes. When the EPA asked what kind of treatment, there seemed to be a reversal. One email says, quote, "Flint is currently not practicing corrosion control treatment."


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Water is a human right. Fight, fight, fight.

SMITH: Friday afternoon, protesters lined up outside a university building where city and state officials announced their latest plan to fix Flint's water problems. Here's Claire McClinton.

CLAIRE MCCLINTON: We survived bacteria. We've had boil water advisories as a result. They put too much chloride in the water. And it's just been one disaster after another.

SMITH: Inside the building, state officials made yet another reversal, telling reporters that actually, Flint has been treating the water for lead. Now state officials say they'll start a new corrosion-control treatment plan for Flint by next month. Until then, they've budgeted a million dollars to give people free lead filters for their homes. For NPR News, I'm Lindsey Smith. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

KUER is listener-supported public radio. Support this work by making a donation today.