Surrounded by lead paint and gas, anyone who lived through the 1960s and 1980s had some lead exposure
"It's hard to know what a 'safe' level of exposure is" for adults
There are no safe levels of lead for children; in the U.S. half a million children may have levels that are too high
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Aaron Stinson does whatever he can to stay healthy. He exercises regularly. He avoids sweets. He drinks only water.
“I consume a lot of water. I try to live a healthy lifestyle so I try not to drink too much pop,” Stinson said. “This is a lifestyle with me, I consume a lot of water, all my friends and family know that about me.”
The problem is Stinson lives in Flint, Michigan, born and raised. The water he constantly consumed for his health may hurt it, permanently and for generations to come.
Lead, as we now know, contaminated the water there. Stinson is one of many Flint residents who tested positive for lead exposure.
“Putting water in my body is something that is supposed to be pure,” Stinson said. “It is a little hard for me to wrap my mind around it.”
At first Stinson didn’t think much about the sharp stomach cramps that bothered him throughout the day and woke him up at night. It left him tired. Strange pains strained his muscles and joints. He blamed it on something he ate. “I don’t eat beef or pork, but I thought maybe it’s the chicken or fish,” Stinson said.
When news started trickling out last January that there might be something wrong with the Flint water Stinson drank constantly, he still didn’t put it together. But when his pain didn’t go away, his girlfriend urged him to tell his doctor about his water habit.
Stinson’s doctor ordered a test for lead poisoning. He got a call a couple of days later.
“She talked in a soft tone,” Stinson said. “I was kind of nervous, (like) anytime a doctor calls you back with blood tests.” His results concerned his doctor.
He asked the doctor what to do. She handed him a pamphlet and told him there wasn’t medicine to treat lead poisoning at that level. She told him to drink orange juice, consume protein and under no circumstance should he drink the tap water. “I’m angry, I’m upset,” Stinson said. “I could end up dying with this toxin put in my body, it could hurt my organs, it could take my memory. It is a scary thing.”
“I want someone to explain to me what is going on,” Stinson said. “How do I stay healthy at this point?”
Lead has a toxic effect on the nervous system and it affects muscle movements. “It could also be lethal in terms of impacting the brain and nervous system, depending on how much or how quickly the exposure occurs,” said Dr. Peter LeWitt, a neurologist at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. Long term, lead exposure may be connected to an increased risk of Parkinson’s and prostate cancer and it may affect the health of a person’s unborn children.
“It’s hard to know what a ‘safe’ level of exposure is,” LeWitt said. “Any of us from the 1960s through the 1980s had a lot of exposure due to paint and leaded gasoline, for example.” But acute exposure to a concentration of lead could cause damage even in a few hours.
“Water is a particularly noxious way of getting it into the system,” LeWitt said. But as far as Stinson’s future, he is “in a zone of uncertainty for medical management,” LeWitt said. “Fortunately a level like that will go down if the exposure goes away,” he said. Adult bones can naturally process some of the toxin out of the body, but it can cause damage along the way. Much is still unknown. Science “needs to answer the question, ‘What are the consequences and how can we monitor this over time?’” LeWitt said.
For children, whose bodies and brains are still developing, lead poisoning can be even more devastating. Tamara Rubin knows that all too well. The Portland environmental activist and filmmaker visited Flint last week to raise awareness about lead exposure and to help residents get tested. She has spent more than a decade navigating a medical and education system that isn’t prepared to cope with lead poisoned children.
Of her four children, three experience the long-term health consequences of lead poisoning. Two became exposed after accidentally inhaling fumes from an open flame torch a painting contractor used to work on their home in 2005. He was using the torch to remove the lead paint off their historic home. Being at different ages when they experienced the acute lead exposure affected them differently. Unlike with adults, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said, there is no safe blood lead level in children.
With at least 4 million children living in U.S. households that expose them to lead, there are about half a million kids aged 1 to 5 with blood levels above 5 micrograms per deciliter, a level that requires medical intervention. But since the poisoning often happens without obvious symptoms at first, lead poisoning often goes untreated. Globally, childhood lead exposure is labeled a major public health concern and is believed to contribute to 600,000 new cases of intellectual disabilities every year, according to the World Health Organization. Some studies have even linked lead exposure to a rise in violence in cities such as Chicago.
Rubin’s children had clear signs of exposure.
Avi, who is now 11, was diagnosed with a brain injury due to lead poisoning. His mother said his IQ tested in the 130 range, which puts him one level below genius. But he struggles with word recognition and is learning to read at the age of 11. He is social, but it’s hard.
“He has a lot of trouble with impulse control,” Rubin said. “He wants to play advanced games with his peers, but it’s not easy for him.”
Three schools rejected him last year and a school that specialized in behavioral disorders that did offer to take him wasn’t a good fit. He’s in a special needs class, but it’s not the best fit. A school Rubin felt would be appropriate told her he would need too much one-on-one attention. “His problems are too unique. He apparently doesn’t fit in the right box with (these particular) mental challenges caused by lead,” Rubin said.
A.J., who was 3 years old at the time of the lead exposure, has trouble with his teeth, pain in his bones and has constant stomach troubles and struggles to eat. Charlie, Rubin’s youngest, has severe ADHD and rarely sleeps.
In the last three years her children have missed more than two years of school combined. Because they have missed so much school, the lead poisoning has also had an emotional and economic impact on the family. As computer consultants, Rubin and her husband get paid by the hour. Spending so much time managing her children’s challenges, this middle class, college educated family found the bank foreclosing on their house and they wound up on food assistance.
“Fortunately, I’m smart enough to know that I won’t let this take it all away,” Rubin said. So she formed her nonprofit to help other mothers in her circumstance and made a documentary about her family’s struggle with lead poisoning.
Traveling around the world, she has met many other parents who talk about the “lifetime of challenges” lead poisoning has left them. Many parents, she said, don’t want to think their child could have lead poisoning.
“There is so much shame and blame around lead,” she said. “Other mothers tell me their city or state officials have essentially told them they weren’t doing a good job parenting. They hear messages like ‘You need to wash your kid’s hands more,’ or ‘Send them to day care, rather than let them play at a home that may have lead paint.’ These parents are made to feel embarrassed or uncomfortable and they shouldn’t be. Lead is all around us.”
Lead has left Rubin’s children with much uncertainty, but she vows to fight on behalf of the millions of others poisoned. “It’s hard to know what their future holds,” Rubin said. “I hope and pray that they will be OK, but we can’t know.”
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Stinson said he won’t ever know when he can trust what comes out of the tap. “Every day when I wake up I have to remember: ‘Don’t put your toothbrush under the faucet’” as his parents taught him, he said. “I want everyone in America to think about Flint when they do that in the morning.”
Like with Rubin’s family, the health conscious Flint resident doesn’t know what happens next and it troubles him. “It’s hard,” Stinson said. “I’m still trying to deal with it, still trying to understand really how do I go forward. How do I live a healthy lifestyle at this point going forward?”