Flint’s Water Crisis Hides the Blessing

By Harold Brown

Harold Brown, Senior Fellow, Georgia Public Policy Foundation

Harold Brown

President Obama has announced he is heading to Flint, Mich., on May 4th, another sign the Flint Water Crisis is the latest example of protesting too much. The good news is hidden; the crisis is being shouted.

The Detroit Free Press announced, “President Obama declares emergency in Flint” and called it “a manmade catastrophe.” The Guardian newspaper headlined it, “Flint water crisis was ‘environmental injustice,’ governor’s taskforce finds.”

The Flint waterworks switched its intake from the Detroit water system to the Flint River April 30, 2014. After the switch, Flint didn’t use a corrosion-control treatment to help prevent lead and copper from leaching from water lines.

In February 2015, the city of Flint tested tap water in a residence whose owner had inquired about its safety. The lead level was 104 (and later 397 and 707) parts per billion (ppb), higher than the Environmental Protection Agency’s “Action Level” of 15 ppb. A flurry of publicity, political recrimination – even a congressional hearing – followed.

The mismatch between severity of the “crisis” and the degree of lead “poisoning” is incredible. The danger has declined so much that in 2012, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reduced the safe blood level (“blood lead level of concern,” now called “reference level”) from 10 to 5 micrograms per deciliter (ug/dL). The safe lead level has now been tightened four times since the 40 ug/dL level set in 1971.

In 2005, 16.2 percent of Flint children ages 5 and younger had blood lead levels higher than 5 ug/dL. Last year, it was down to 3.3 percent. An increase in 2014 to 4 percent was a small blip in a long descent; it was essentially the same as the national average for that year (4.2 percent).

Flint is not Michigan’s most lead-toxic city: Detroit’s rate for children above the reference level was twice that of Flint (8.2 percent) in 2014; Highland Park was nearly four times as high (15.9 percent). Flint’s average was about on par with the whole state.

This nation has seen such dramatic progress in reducing lead in the environment and in young children that the CDC listed childhood lead poisoning prevention as one of the “Ten Great Public Health Achievements” from 2001 to 2010.

But that is a tiny part of the story.

From 1976-1980 lead levels in children ages 5 and younger averaged 16 ug/dL. By 2007-2010, it was 1.3 ug/dL. Over the three decades, children with lead levels at 10 ug/dL or higher decreased from 88 percent to 0.5 percent. In other words, lead in about 13 million children exceeded this reference level in the late 1970s, compared to about 125,000 today. That’s a 99 percent decrease.

A CDC webpage gives the number of children above the most recent “safe level” as a half million. Just 15 years ago, it was eight times as high, about 2 million.

For centuries plumbing was made of lead; the Latin word for lead is “plumb.” Dangers of lead poisoning have been known since the early- to mid-1800s, or longer. The ailment produced was called “plumbism”. Nearly all houses in the early 1900s had lead water pipes. (The home where the Flint crisis began was found to have about 25 feet of old lead pipe in its service line.) In 1900, a survey of 22 municipal waterworks in Massachusetts found an average lead level in the water 50 times today’s safe limit; some were over 100 times higher.

The largest source of lead in the 1970s was in the air, from the use of leaded gasoline. EPA estimated in 1970 that of 220,000 tons of lead released into the environment, about 80 percent was from leaded gasoline. As it and other uses were phased out, emissions decreased 99.6 percent by 2011.

A major concern of lead’s effect is retarding of mental abilities in developing children – a  lowered IQ. One widely quoted research report estimates a 0.25 IQ unit decrease for each ug/dL increase in blood lead. The nearly 15 ug/dL decrease in blood lead since the late 1970s equates to about 3.75 units gain in IQ.

This is somewhat less than the “Flynn Effect,” which refers to a yearly increase in IQ of about 0.3 units per year for Americans over the last half-century or more. Perhaps the decrease in lead had less to do with the increase in IQ than some claim it did.

Children are the justification for all kinds of governmental programs and expenditures, large and small – and for complaints that government is not doing enough. As the president prepares to bemoan Flint’s crisis, it’s worth reminding Americans of the good news: Children in Flint and across America have benefited from one of the greatest successes in public health in the last half-century – removal of lead from their environment.

University of Georgia Professor Emeritus Harold Brown is a Senior Fellow with the Georgia Public Policy Foundation and author of, “The Greening of Georgia: The Improvement of the Environment in the Twentieth Century.” The Georgia Public Policy Foundation is an independent, state-focused think tank that proposes market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.

© Georgia Public Policy Foundation (April 29, 2016). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and his affiliations are cited.