Civic leaders and health officials in Flint are building a database to track and treat victims of lead-contaminated water. The whistleblower physician who first spotted the problem in Flint children hopes it will be a vital public health tool.
In January, Michigan State University received a $500,000 state grant to create a registry of people adversely affected by the Flint Water Crisis. The project aims to track and treat residents who were exposed to lead contamination in the city’s public water system. It’s been in the works for more than a year.
WKAR’s Kevin Lavery spoke with Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the director of the Pediatric Public Health Initiative in Flint. She says the registry is meant to blanket lead-impacted children with support services.
Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha:
It will allow us to identify who was exposed, and to be able to evaluate and track them for decades to come. This is very similar to other registries that are out there. For example, the World Trade Center has a registry that’s now in its 15th year, which is hard to believe. But they’ve been following the people who were exposed to the World Trade Center disaster and have been supporting those victims and really evaluating their outcomes.
Lead poisoning is irreversible, but there are ways to buffer its effects. What does that mean in your mind; to “buffer” the effects of lead?
There is no safe level of lead. Lead is a potent, irreversible neurotoxin. It’s probably one of the most well studied neurotoxins known to man. There’s no magic pill; there’s no antidote. We can’t take away that exposure once it’s happened...but there is so much we can do to mitigate that exposure.
In my world, that really revolves around three “buckets of opportunity:” education, nutrition and health. It’s surrounding our children with a nutrient-rich environment in those three buckets to support their development, using evidence-based interventions that we know promote children’s development. Things like literacy programs, early intervention services, universal preschool, high-quality child care, maternal-infant support programs, home visiting, schoolhouse services, nutrition access, health care, mental health resources. These are all things that we know, that are proven to promote children’s development. This is what we’re trying to do in Flint. We’re trying to surround our children with these kinds of services to mitigate, to buffer the impact of this water crisis.
Flint is getting $17.5 million in federal funding, which was approved in December 2016. Is that enough to maintain and build upon the programming into the future?
That $17.5 million is specifically for the registry. It’s only for four years of funding, and when you talk to folks who’ve built similar registries, they say it’s not enough even for four years. We hope this registry continues for decades to come and not just four years. So we have a lot of work to do to maintain this program and all we have in place. All of these wrap-around services we have in Flint are time limited. Maybe they’re funded by state, federal or philanthropic dollars for two or three years, and this is not a two or three year issue. This is something we need to continue supporting for decades to come.
Can you fast forward in your mind, 10 or 20 years from now, in the life of a severely affected child? What might their life be like had there been no registry and no help whatsoever, versus with the resources that you’re trying to put in place now?
We could have easily stepped back and researched these kids in five, 10, 15 years and showed the impacts of lead exposure. That’s quite well researched. We know what it does to cognition, to behavior, to special education services, to criminal justice to decreased economic productivity. That’s well-studied.
We could not sit back and do nothing. We had to intervene and surround these children with these resources.
So, what I hope to see in five, 10 or 15 years, is something that hasn’t been done before. It’s something proactive and positive that will really show to the world that Flint does not mean disaster; Flint does not mean that this is a generation of children with no future, but really, that we were able to do something that hasn’t been done before. That we were able to surround our children, wrap them around with these resources and really mitigate the impact of their exposure.