Getting the Lead Out of Flint Disinformation

I’ve been wanting to circle back around to the story about the leaded water in Flint, Michigan, for some time now, on the suspicion that a close look at the data would show that the blood lead levels turning up in children are likely much lower than was typical of the majority of American children just 40 years ago, when airborne lead levels from leaded gasoline were very high.

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control, in the mid-1970s 88 percent of children nationwide had blood lead levels above 10 micrograms per deciliter (ug/dl). In the old days the dangerous level was thought to be around 30 ug/dl, but of course we’ve moved that down to about 5, and you hear a lot of people breathlessly say that there is no safe level. Here’s the chart from the 2011 edition of my Almanac of Environmental Trends:

Children Ages 1 - 5 with Blood Lead Levels Over 10 ug/dl

Children Ages 1 – 5 with Blood Lead Levels Over 10 ug/dl

But it turns out I don’t have to dig for the Flint data and the right interpretation of things. Kevin Drum of the lefty Mother Jones has done it for me. He reported last week:

[T]he health effects are, in fact, pretty minimal. With a few rare exceptions, the level of lead contamination caused by Flint’s water won’t cause any noticeable cognitive problems in children. It will not lower IQs or increase crime rates 20 years from now. It will not cause ADHD. It will not affect anyone’s ability to play sports. It will not cause anyone’s hair to fall out. It will not cause cancer. And “lead leaching” vegetables don’t work.

For two years, about 5 percent of the children in Flint recorded blood lead levels greater than 5 m/d. This is a very moderate level for a short period of time. In every single year before 2010, Flint was above this number; usually far, far above.

And here’s the chart Drum produced:

Drum Chart copy

This makes it even more clear that if Flint levels of lead exposure are as great a health hazard as MSNBC says, then nearly all baby boomers should be mentally impaired. (Though now that you mention it. . . Never mind.)

I like Drum’s ending:

Of course, at this point Flint residents probably don’t believe anything the government tells them, and for understandable reasons. So maybe it’s time for someone they trust a little more to begin telling them the truth. I’m looking at you, Rachel Maddow.

Good luck with that.