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MSU Scientists Change Direction of Flint’s Water Crisis

Mona Hanna-Attisha and Rick Sadler

The data were alarming: an increasing number of Flint, Mich., children had dangerously high lead levels in their blood, yet Mona Hanna-Attisha (above, left), MD, an assistant professor in Michigan State University’s College of Human Medicine, could not persuade state officials that they faced a serious public health crisis.

Her analysis was wrong, some insisted, and the city’s water was safe to drink.

Hanna-Attisha, director of the pediatric residency at Hurley Children’s Hospital, turned to Rick Sadler (above, right), PhD, an urban geographer specializing in analyzing how a community’s human-built environment affects health. The two had met months earlier after Sadler joined the college’s Division of Public Health. Could he geocode blood samples from Hurley Children’s Hospital, Hanna-Attisha asked, and determine if she was correct that the children of Flint were being poisoned by the city’s water?

State health and environmental officials had mapped the children’s blood lead levels by ZIP codes, skewing their analysis, since many of those zones overlap neighborhoods far outside the area served by Flint’s water system.

Over a weekend in September 2015, Sadler conducted a more-detailed geospatial analysis, linking the blood tests of children younger than five years to specific addresses. He compared blood samples taken in 2013, when the city was still buying water from Detroit, with those from 2015, after it began drawing from the Flint River. He then compared blood lead levels of 750 children in Flint with those of 750 living outside the city, both before and after the switch.

As a scientist, Sadler isn’t given to overreaction, but “when I put the maps together, it was kind of alarming,” he said. “I had never done research that had such critical and immediate importance to it. I would say I was convinced.”

He called Hanna-Attisha and told her of his findings. The number of Flint children showing elevated blood lead levels had more than doubled to 4.9 percent after the city switched its water source. In some older and poorer neighborhoods, 10.6 percent of the children showed elevated blood lead levels. Children living in Genesee County outside the city showed no similar increase.

The percentage of children poisoned by lead likely is much higher, since it disappears from the blood within days of exposure, yet its consequences can last a lifetime.

Hanna-Attisha asked Sadler to double and triple check his figures. If she was going to convince state and local officials that they must act, there was no room for error.

The American Journal of Public Health published the peerreviewed study online in December and in its February print edition, lending credibility to the finding that the city’s water was threatening the health of residents, particularly children.

State officials, including Gov. Rick Snyder, were convinced. Had Sadler not conducted “that precise geocoding, we wouldn’t be where we are today,” Hanna-Attisha said.

In January, she was appointed head of the Pediatric Public Health Initiative, a joint project of MSU and Hurley Children’s Hospital, bringing together specialists in pediatrics, child development, psychology, epidemiology, nutrition, toxicology, geography, education and other areas. The initiative will assess the impact of the lead exposure, monitor the long-term effect on children, and develop evidence-based interventions to mitigate the physical and cognitive decline typically caused by lead.

The study by Hanna-Attisha and Sadler (co-authored by Jenny LaChance, MS, and Allison Champney Schnepp, MD) confirmed earlier warnings by Virginia Tech researcher Marc Edwards, PhD, that Flint’s water contained dangerously high lead levels. Lead began leaching into drinking water from old service lines because state and local officials failed to add anticorrosive chemicals after switching to the Flint River.

When Sadler compared his map where children with high blood lead levels lived with a map of where Edwards found the highest lead levels in water samples, the two matched up almost perfectly.

- excerpted from College of Human Medicine, MD magazine 2016

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