Were the Flint children poisoned?

Flint, Michigan had the lead level in its water raised when the water source was changed. This gave the children lead poisoning. Or did it? In this episode we’ll Reconsider This.

Medical marijuana has been allowed in many states because of its health benefits. But are those benefit backed up by actual studies?

Mentioned links:

The Children of Flint Were Not ‘Poisoned’

Most in US think cannabis has health benefits, despite lack of data – study

In major study, cannabis shows no benefit for chronic pain

Previous episode on Flint, Michigan:

Episode 135: The Flint Blame Game, and Defending Caitlyn Jenner

Episode 140: Reconsidering the Flint Water Crisis, and the College Cost Fairy Tale

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Show transcript

Doctors Hernán Gómez and Kim Dietrich are experts in toxicology and environmental health. They wrote an opinion piece entitled, “The Children of Flint Were Not ‘Poisoned’”, which appeared in the NY Times recently. Yes, that NY Times. We’re going to talk about the Flint water situation in a segment of Reconsider This.

First of all, what they’re not claiming is that lead in Flint, Michigan’s water didn’t rise after the cost-cutting measure to change water sources. They acknowledge, “It’s unacceptable that any child was exposed to drinking water with elevated lead concentrations.” So let’s get that off the table.

Their concern is the use of the word “poisoned”, giving a stigma to the children of Flint that they don’t deserve, and which is counter to the science. Let’s start by noting some of the numbers for lead in the blood. In the mid-1970s, the average American child under the age of 5 had a blood lead level of 14 micrograms per deciliter. The good news is that by 2014 it had fallen dramatically, to 0.84, mostly due to banning lead in paint and gasoline. These days, the CDC has come out with a reference level of 5 micrograms per deciliter, a relatively round number above which they take interest. But that doesn’t constitute “lead poisoning”. In fact, the CDC recommends medical treatment only for blood lead levels at or above 45. Not a single child in Flint tested this high. This was a surprise for several visiting celebrities, who requested a visit to the “lead ward” of a local Children’s Hospital.

So 5 is simply an artificial line that the CDC uses for statistical purposes. For example, the annual percentage of Flint children whose blood lead exceeded the reference level before the water problem was 2.2%. It went up, of course, after the switch, but to just 3.7%. Again, this sort of change should not be happening, but it’s probably surprisingly smaller than what most people who’ve been reading the media would expect. And consider this: just 20 years ago, nearly 45 percent of young children in the entire state of Michigan had blood lead levels above that reference level.

Here’s another surprising statistic. These two doctors found that while blood lead levels did increase after the water switched over in 2014, they increased by a modest 0.11 micrograms per deciliter. To put that in perspective, a similar increase of 0.12 occurred randomly between 2010 and 2011.

I feel the need to reiterate that this sort of situation should not happen. We should keep our water supply as safe as it can be. But understanding the truth is paramount. As Doctors Gomez and Dietrich conclude, it is “unfair and inaccurate to point a finger at Flint and repeatedly use the word “poisoned.” All it does is terrify the parents and community members here who truly believe there may be a “generation lost” in this city, when there is no scientific evidence to support this conclusion.” When you read other articles about the Flint water situation, consider this.

The UK Guardian is certainly no right-wing paper, that’s for sure. That’s why I was a little surprised to read this headline from there, “Most in US think cannabis has health benefits, despite lack of data”. Basically what it’s saying is that for all the things you keep hearing weed is good for, very little is supported by actual science.

This is from a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine. The study’s lead author is Dr. Salomeh Keyhani, a professor of general internal medicine at the University of California San Francisco medical school. While many survey takers credited marijuana with things like relieving insomnia, anxiety and depression, the good doctor says, “They believe things that we have no data for.” Further, he says, “We need better data. We need any data.”

This is not to say that marijuana doesn’t help with these and other conditions, it’s just that there are no studies to prove it. There are anecdotes about people finding various forms of relief, but, as I’ve said on this show before, the plural of anecdote is not data. Part of the problem with actually getting data about the benefits is that the US Drug Enforcement Agency calls pot a Schedule 1 drug, a category that claims it has no medical benefits. So trying to actually perform studies on it is difficult. One study that was done and reported in the prestigious journal The Lancet showed that cannabis does not reduce chronic pain. More study would be good, but if you claim to be pro-science, then you need to admit the lack of data, and what data there is isn’t quite on your side yet.

Filed under: EnvironmentMedicine