Wednesday, May 11, 2016


I missed this when it first came out, but it's worth mentioning. It's Kevin Drum, writing for Mother Jones, providing some revisionist history about Flint:

These people desperately need to be told the truth:
  • What happened in Flint was a horrible, inexcusable tragedy.
  • Residents have every right to be furious with government at all levels.
  • But the 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.
For a little context about lead exposure, consider this:
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. 
When I was a child, lead levels were much, much higher, primarily because most of the cars on the road were burning leaded gasoline. Steve Hayward shares the relevant chart:

We got the lead out
The meaning of this chart -- in the late 1970s, nearly 90 percent of children had lead levels over 10 micrograms per deciliter. This was all over the country. If you look at the numbers from Flint, about 5 percent of children there had similar levels for a short time.

Does this mean we shouldn't solve the issue in Flint? Of course not. However, as we consider the path forward, there might be other issues to address as well:
The Flint water crisis has triggered yet another lawsuit, this one filed by the city's former administrator, who claims she was wrongfully fired for blowing the whistle on the mayor of Flint for allegedly trying to steer money from a charity for local families into a campaign fund.

Former City Administrator Natasha Henderson, 39, who now lives in Muskegon, claims in a lawsuit filed today in U.S. District Court that she was terminated on Feb. 12 for seeking an investigation into allegations of misconduct by Flint Mayor Karen Weaver.

Specifically, the suit alleges that Weaver directed a city employee and volunteer to steer donors away from a charity called Safe Water/Safe Homes, and instead give money to the so-called "Karenabout Flint" fund, which was a political action committee or campaign fund created at Weaver's direction.
As the man said, never let a crisis go to waste.


Benster said...

Can you even buy lead gasoline outside of the major chains like BP and Shell? What the media is not telling us is that Flint has been consistently governed by left-wingers for as long as I have been alive. That kinda defeats the narrative, but some people do not do research.

Mr. D said...

More than some, Benster.

Bike Bubba said...

I haven't seen leaded gasoline in a while. Wiki says it's banned except for a few avgas applications.

One thing of note here--hopefully I do a halfway reasonable imitation of Brian as I say this--is that while the EPA is reputed to set many toxin limits artificially low, there is a very real fact that there are levels connected to both acute (short term) toxicity and chronic/long term toxicity, and we could in fact find that those of us who grew up in the 1970s with leaded gasoline (like myself) and the like were in fact impaired in a less significant way.

Hard to demonstrate that statistically--your sample sizes skyrocket when you're looking at smaller effects--but it could still be hanging out there. And agreed 100% that science goes out the window when one introduces politicians.

Brian said...

Yeah, it's true the lead exposure "experiment" in which everybody here except Ben was an unwitting subject is ongoing. (I am old enough--just barely--to remember when the options at the pump were "regular" and "unleaded".)

It's also probably true that the last cohort to grow up with leaded gasoline also had the highest exposure, because population (and vehicular travel) had exploded post WWII. So that 88% figure is a somewhat meaningful baseline for comparison, but it was probably also higher than the cohorts before then would have been, as well (though I don't think those data exist, so we'll likely never know.)

Anyway, I could go on for a (really) long time about dosage, dosimetry, exposure time, extrapolation, and how all that feeds into what limits the EPA sets (or doesn't) but I don't have too much time and wouldn't want to bore you. (I'm also far from an expert, though I have had to learn a lot about it for some projects I've been involved with over the years.)

It's true that when a decent amount of data is available on a substance, the EPA's limits tend to apply the precautionary principle (and be more conservative than probably need to be, as far as we know.) Lead is a good example of this; lots of data, and conservative limits. (It's also true that in the absence of tox data--e.g., 80,000 or so chemicals currently in industrial, household, or agricultural use--the US default regulatory position is that the substance is presumed to be safe. But that's another topic altogether...)

Anyway, to get back to Flynt: I'd argue that the rapid response and alarm raised over the spike in lead exposure--even a comparatively small one, in historic terms--is itself an argument in favor of vigilance on that front. We can't head off every risk before they arise, but we can react quickly to some well-characterized ones when they do, and before they become truly dangerous. That's more or less what happened here, at least with regard to lead.

Drum definitely has a point that it may be counterproductive to the health and well-being of Flynt residents to overstate the problems of their exposure. (The placebo effect works both ways, unfortunately.) The trick is balancing that concern against the need for vigilance, and public support for it. The general public can't (and doesn't need to) have an MS or better level education in environmental toxicology. But there are a lot of nuances, competing concerns, and uncertainties involved in that field, so the people making the regulatory and public health decisions really do need to know what they are talking about.

Mr. D said...

Can't argue with a thing that you wrote, Brian. Thank you!

As an aside, some of the news outlets recently looked at lead levels in a place that the Benster cares about quite a lot — Galesburg, Illinois. Levels were elevated somewhat, but we have been assured that the pipes at Knox College are in good shape. Galesburg is an interesting case study — like Flint, it's an older town that relied on manufacturing for much of its economy and a major employer, Maytag, recently closed its facility in Galesburg. Most of Galesburg is fine, but there are some fairly poor neighborhoods and pockets of blighted housing stock exist. Infrastructure is a huge issue for places like Galesburg. It's difficult to see where the money is going to come from to fix what needs fixing. Illinois is broke as hell and corrupt, too. Galesburg may be on its own.