It has been a disaster in painfully slow motion. When the city of Flint, Michigan, switched its water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River in 2014, citizens almost immediately complained about the possibility that their water was tainted with lead. They were right, and the water source was switched back in October 2015. But a state of emergency was declared in December, and as of the end of last year, 114 children under age six were shown to have elevated levels of lead in their blood.
Unfortunately, the therapies available to people with elevated lead levels are few. The proven technique is to administer a chelation drug, which binds to lead in the body and allows the kidneys to process it.
Sadly, it’s unlikely to help the children of Flint. The majority found to have elevated lead levels had between five and 10 micrograms per deciliter in their blood. A study completed in 2003 showed that chelation therapy does not result in any measurable cognitive or behavioral benefits for children with lead levels below 44 micrograms per deciliter. And because chelation drugs can increase the risk of kidney damage, it is not recommended for children with levels below 44 micrograms per deciliter.
Increasing calcium and iron intake could help with lead poisoning—the nutrients both compete with lead to bind some of the same receptors in the body. Access to social services for children showing signs of neurological problems can improve their long-term outcomes as well.
None of these come close to the real solution, however: preventing lead exposure in the first place. The Flint case is unusual in that people were exposed through the water supply. Most lead poisoning in the U.S. comes from ingestion of paint chips and dust. As many as a third of homes throughout the country still have lead paint in them, and cases of lead toxicity are an ongoing problem, especially for poor and black communities.
If the awful story of Flint does have a positive outcome, perhaps it will be in garnering renewed attention to a threat that millions of us still face every day.