FLINT, MI — Doctors at Hurley Medical Center have dumped the term “lead-poisoned” when referring to Flint children who went through the city’s water crisis and adopted a replacement — “lead-exposed.”
The doctors unanimously approved a resolution at an annual meeting this week, agreeing to discontinue the use of the word “poisoned” when the medical staff communicates as a collective body, according to a posting on Hurley’s Facebook page.
“Everyone agrees that there was an issue in 2014-2015 with (blood-lead levels) and that any lead level over the lifetime of a child is bad,” the Facebook post from Thursday, May 17, says.
“However, a lead exposure does not equate to a lead poisoning and therefore does not equate to a damaged generation of children in the city of Flint.”
Dr. Hernan Gomez, a toxicologist, pediatrician and emergency physician at Hurley, said calling Flint children “poisoned” is inaccurate, stigmatizes them and reinforces stereotypes that they are more inclined to have lower IQs and a higher propensity for crime.
Lead is a toxic metal that was used for many years in products found in and around homes and may cause health effects such as behavioral problems and learning disabilities, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Gomez said the increased exposure Flint children had to lead during the water crisis was no more than random increases in previous years — and does not rise to the level of a poisoning.
Saying so is “a reinforcement of stereotypes that already exist,” said Gomez, who spoke during the annual meeting, detailing his concerns about the use of the term and about a study he and other doctors authored in “The Journal of Pediactrics” earlier this year.
The study addresses blood lead levels of Flint children from 2006 until 2016, and says levels in the midst of the water crisis were one-half of the average blood lead level of children in the city a decade earlier.
Flint’s water crisis coincided with the city’s use of the Flint River as its water source from April 2014 until October 2015.
After the water source switch, the levels of bacteria, lead and chlorine byproducts spiked in the city and Flint water was suspected as the trigger of outbreaks of Legionnaires’ disease while the river was in use.
Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards and others have said the corrosive river water damaged lead pipes and plumbing in the city, allowing lead to leach into the water supply.
In 2015, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a Hurley pediatrician, studied the blood lead level of Flint infants and children, showing the percentage of them with above average lead levels nearly doubled citywide, and nearly tripled among children in areas at high risk of lead exposure.
Although Gomez’s study also shows the spike Hanna-Attisha recognized, it also notes that other areas in the state had a higher percentage of children with elevated blood lead levels than Flint in 2015, including Kent and Jackson counties and the city of Detroit.
“The random variability of the data suggests that, whereas no child should have been unnecessarily exposed to drinking water with elevated lead concentrations … changes in (blood lead levels) in young children in Flint … did not meet he level of an environmental emergency,” the study says.
Hanna-Attisha, who did not attend the meeting of Hurley doctors, said what to call the increased lead levels in Flint children misses a broader point — that there is no safe level of lead exposure.
“Our water was poisoned,” Hanna-Attisha said. “That is scientifically proven.”