Flint vs. 1976 [...]

Flint, Michigan recently called a state of emergency because the use of water from the Flint river as a public water source had caused a dangerous spike in blood lead levels.° It’s anticipated that this public policy disaster will cause cognitive impairment and possible behavioral problems in the kids affected; lawsuits are underway. But how does the amount of lead in children’s blood in Flint compare to what Generation X was exposed as a result of tailpipe emissions?

The answer is a bit shocking. The Flint emergency has been declared because for a brief period of time (a few months) over 7 percent of Flint’s children had levels in excess of 5µg/dL. That’s three times the current national rate.

Blood Lead Levels in Flint Michigan.
Blood Lead Levels in Flint Michigan. (Source)

Children under the age of five tend to have higher blood lead levels than other groups, as their bodies absorb much more of it.° The damage can last a lifetime, which is why in 2012, based on a review of recent research, the CDC set 5µg/dL as the level at which children should be entered into case management to prevent further exposure. About 2.5% of children nationally had this level of exposure from 2007 to 2010, although this level has decreased a bit since then.°

How do these Flint emergency levels (7% of children above the 5µg/dL level) compare to historical levels? Well, in 1970 the average preschooler had blood lead levels of 23µg/dL, four to five times above the danger level:

Lead Levels and Crime
(Source)

Moreover, these were not levels that children were exposed to for a month or two: this would have been exposure to lead at levels 4 to 5 times the recommended maximum over the child’s entire childhood.

Comparison with average rates (vs. dangerous level rates) is perhaps even more striking. The average blood lead level in a 1970 preschooler was about 10 times the average blood lead level today.


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