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Mother Jones

Meet the Mom Who Helped Expose Flint’s Toxic Water Nightmare

 

LeeAnne Walters’ tap water tested at 27 times the EPA limit for lead. The city offered her a garden hose.

On a chilly evening last March in Flint, Michigan, LeeAnne Walters was getting ready for bed when she heard her daughter shriek from the bathroom of the family’s two-story clapboard house. She ran upstairs to find 18-year-old Kaylie standing in the shower, staring at a clump of long brown hair that had fallen from her head.

Walters, a 37-year-old mother of four, was alarmed but not surprised—the entire family was losing hair. There had been other strange maladies over the previous few months: The twins, three-year-old Gavin and Garrett, kept breaking out in rashes. Gavin had stopped growing. On several occasions, 14-year-old JD had suffered abdominal pains so severe that Walters took him to the hospital. At one point, all of LeeAnne’s own eyelashes fell out.

The family, as you have probably guessed, was suffering from the effects of lead in Flint’s water supply—contamination that will have long-term, irreversible neurological consequences on the city’s children. The exposure has quietly devastated Flint since April 2014, when, in an effort to cut costs, a state-appointed emergency manager switched the city’s water source from Detroit’s water system over to the Flint River.

Elected officials toasted the change with glasses of water, but some longtime residents were skeptical, particularly since Flint-based General Motors had once used the river as a dumping ground. “I thought it was one of those Onion articles,” said Rhonda Kelso, a 52-year-old Flint native. “We already knew the Flint River was toxic waste.”

The lead exposure persisted for 17 months, despite repeated complaints from residents of this majority-black city. It is in no small part thanks to Walters, a no-nonsense stay-at-home mom with a husband in the Navy, that the Flint situation is now a full-blown national scandal complete with a class-action lawsuit, a federal investigation, National Guard troops, and many people—including Bernie Sanders—calling for the resignation of Gov. Rick Snyder. “Without [Walters] we would be nowhere,” Mona Hanna-Attisha, the head of pediatrics at Flint’s Hurley Medical Center, told me. “She’s the crux of all of this.”

It was the summer of 2014 when Walters first realized something was very wrong: Each time she bathed the three-year-olds, they would break out in tiny red bumps. Sometimes, when Gavin had soaked in the tub for a while, scaly red skin would form across his chest at the water line. That November, after brown water started flowing from her taps, Walters decided it was time to stock up on bottled water.

The family developed a routine: For toothbrushing, a gallon of water was left by the bathroom sink. Crates of water for drinking and cooking crowded the kitchen. The adults and teenagers showered whenever possible at friends’ houses outside Flint; when they had to do it at home, they flushed out the taps first and limited showers to five minutes. Gavin and Garrett got weekly baths in bottled water and sponge baths with baby wipes on the other days. Slowly, the acute symptoms began to wane.

In January 2015, Flint officials sent out a notice declaring that the city’s water contained high levels of trihalomethanes, the byproduct of a disinfectant used to treat the water. Over time, these chemicals can cause liver, kidney, and nervous system problems. The advisory warned that sick and elderly people might be at an increased risk, but it said the water was otherwise safe to drink. “That was when I went to my first city council meeting,” Walters told me.

She wasn’t the only one. Flint residents showed up in droves, many complaining of stinky, tainted water coming out of their taps. They cited symptoms ranging from hair loss and rashes to memory and vision loss.

The problem was exacerbated by a lack of alternatives. Flint is one of America’s poorest cities, with 41 percent of its residents living in poverty. Many couldn’t afford bottled water or make the trek to obtain it—the city of 100,000 only has one major grocery store, on the far side of town. Kelso, a stroke survivor who lives with her 12-year-old daughter, relied on relatives to take her on water runs outside the city. “Sometimes there’s no water,” she said. “People who can buy water, they buy it up.”

Throughout most of 2015, the city and state maintained there was nothing to worry about. “I want to assure everyone that the city is sensitive to the public’s concerns,” Dayne Walling, then Flint’s mayor, declared at a press conference that January. “The city water is safe to drink. My family and I drink it and use it every day.” Walters and others, dubbing themselves “water warriors,” began staging regular protests outside City Hall.

In February, at Walters’ urging, the city sent an employee to test the water coming from her taps. A few days later, she received a voice mail from the water department, warning her to keep her kids away from the water. “You know when somebody calls and you can just hear the panic in their voice? It was that,” Walters recalled. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, there’s no safe level of lead in drinking water. The maximum concentration allowed by law is 15 parts per billion. The Walters’ tap water measured nearly 400 ppb.

Walters began compulsively researching lead exposure. She learned, to her horror, that the element has a particularly dramatic effect on young children, with long-term symptoms that can include a lower IQ, shortened attention span, and increases in violence and antisocial behavior—not to mention effects on reproductive and other organs. Studies also have tied higher lead levels to significantly increased rates of crime and teen pregnancy. The neurological and behavioral effects, notes the World Health Organization, “are believed to be irreversible.”

Walters rushed to get her children tested, and the results confirmed her worst fears: All four kids had been exposed to lead, and Gavin, who already had immune system problems, had bona fide lead poisoning, which put him at far greater risk. “I was hysterical,” said Walters. “At first, it was self-blame. And then there’s that anger: How are they letting them do this?”

The city’s initial response was to hook up a garden hose to her neighbor’s house to provide water for her family—officials claimed that the problem probably had to do with the Walters’ own plumbing. Just days after Walters got the results of her children’s blood tests, Gov. Snyder’s office assured residents that “Flint’s water system is producing water that meets all state and federal standards.” (Representatives from the city and the state’s Department of Environmental Quality declined to comment for this story.)

Walters, who is trained as a medical assistant, began staying up late at night to go through reams of Flint water quality reports. She learned that Flint River water is more corrosive than Detroit tap water, and she wondered why Flint hadn’t applied standard chemicals—known as corrosion controls—to prevent the leaching of metal from its aging pipes into the water supply. This treatment is critical in a city such as Flint, where half of households are connected to a lead water line. She also didn’t understand why the city employee who tested her water ran the tap for several minutes before taking a sample. If something were building up in her pipes, wouldn’t flushing it out understate the results?

Frustrated with the city’s lackadaisical response, Walters called Miguel Del Toral, a manager at the EPA’s Midwest water division, last March. She explained that Flint didn’t appear to be using corrosion controls and that it was flushing pipes before conducting lead tests. She also emailed him water quality reports for the previous year. Del Toral was floored. “From a technical standpoint, there’s just no justification for the way Flint is conducting its tests,” he later told the American Civil Liberties Union. “Any credible scientist will tell you [the city’s] method is not the way to catch worst-case conditions.”

By contacting Del Toral, Walters unwittingly unleashed a chain of investigations. He introduced her to Marc Edwards, an expert in lead corrosion at Virginia Tech who instructed her to collect new samples from her house without pre-flushing the pipes. In those samples, Edwards found lead concentrations of 13,200 ppb—more than twice the level the EPA classifies as hazardous waste. “At that point, you do not just have smoke, you have a three-alarm fire and should respond immediately,” he told the Detroit News.

Edwards put together a team to conduct field tests in Flint and to seek data from the city and the state. Del Toral, meanwhile, relayed his concerns to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, setting off a slow, bureaucratic back-and-forth between the state and the EPA. News that that the Virginia Tech team and the EPA were looking into the matter alarmed Mona Hanna-Attisha, the pediatrician at Hurley Medical Center. She began researching the blood lead levels of Flint’s youngest children before and after the change of water supply, comparing them with children living elsewhere in Genesee County.

The results from both investigations came back last September. Edwards’ tests suggested that one in six Flint homes had lead water levels exceeding the EPA’s safety threshold. Hanna-Attisha found that the rate of children younger than five with elevated lead concentrations in their blood had doubled—and in some areas, tripled—following the switch to Flint River water. The effect, she told CNN, would be analogous to “drinking through lead-painted straws.”

The day after Hanna-Attisha’s findings came out, the city released a lead advisory. State officials remained skeptical, insisting that the results were incorrect and that Flint’s water met federal standards. But by mid-October, after weeks of deliberations and lots of bad press, Gov. Snyder ordered that Flint’s water supply be switched back to the Detroit system. “It recently has become clear that our drinking-water program staff made a mistake while working with the city of Flint,” said Dan Wyant, the state’s Environmental Quality Director, who resigned not long after. “Simply stated, staff employed a federal protocol they believed was appropriate, and it was not.”

Earlier this month, Snyder deployed National Guard troops to work alongside Red Cross volunteers, delivering bottled water, water filters, and lead-testing kits to Flint residents—who still can’t drink from the tap thanks to the corroded lead pipes. On Saturday, President Barack Obama declared a state of emergency in Flint, entitling the city to federal disaster relief funds. Several residents, including Rhonda Kelso, have joined together in a class-action suit targeting city and state officials, including ex-Mayor Walling and Gov. Snyder. The US Attorney’s Office for Michigan’s Eastern District has launched its own investigation into the crisis.

The Walters no longer live in Flint—they moved to Virginia in October, partly in response to the contamination. But the water issue continues to consume LeeAnne, who regularly Skypes into meetings and fields calls with politicians and activists. She recently traveled to Washington, DC, to meet with EPA officials. Other Flint moms seek her out for advice; one telephoned after tests found that her 15-year-old daughter had the liver function of a 75-year-old. Walters won’t let her family drink Virginia tap water until she’s had it tested—or eat at a restaurant without reviewing its health reports in advance.

At five years old, Gavin weighs a mere 35 pounds to his twin brother’s 53.

The hardest thing, she says, is not knowing how the lead exposure will affect her kids in the long term. Gavin was the “party animal” of the twins, but lately he’s lost his appetite and sleeps more. At five, he weighs a mere 35 pounds to Garrett’s 53, and he mispronounces words that he could once handle. Garrett was recently diagnosed with ADHD. Both boys continue to ask, when handed a cup of water, whether it is “good water or bad water.”

When I asked Walters what she makes of all the national attention, she paused. “Everybody’s been asking, ‘How do you feel now that people are finally listening? Do you feel satisfied?'”

Then she was crying. “Every time I get a call from another mother whose child is sick,” she managed, “it doesn’t feel like a victory.”

Meet the mom who helped expose Flint’s toxic water nightmare

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Potential Health Risks to DOD FIRING-RANGE PERSONNEL from Recurrent Lead Exposure

Committee on Potential Health Risks from Recurrent
Lead Exposure of DOD Firing Range Personnel

Committee on Toxicology

Board on Environmental Studies and Toxicology

Division on Earth and Life Studies

NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL
OF THE NATIONAL ACADEMIES

THE NATIONAL ACADEMIES PRESS

Washington, D.C.

 

“…High risk of heart disease, kidney damage, and dementia.”

“A review of the epidemiologic and toxicologic data allowed the committee to conclude that there is overwhelming evidence that the OSHA standard provides inadequate protection for DOD firing-range personnel and for any other worker populations covered by the general industry standard. Specifically, the premise that maintaining BLLs under 40 μg/dL for a working lifetime will protect workers adequately is not valid; by inference, the OSHA PEL and action level are also inadequate for protecting firing-range workers. The committee found sufficient evidence to infer causal relationships between BLLs under 40 μg/dL and adverse neurologic, hematopoietic, renal, reproductive, and cardio-vascular effects. The committee also found compelling evidence of developmental effects in offspring exposed to lead in utero and during breastfeeding, and this raises additional concerns about exposures of women of childbearing age….

Despite changes in military tactics and technology, proficiency in the handling of weapons remains a cornerstone in the training of the modern combat soldier. Modern military forces are trained on one or more small arms, including handguns, shotguns, rifles, and machine guns. Many of the projectiles used in military small arms contain lead. Exposure to lead during weapons training on firing ranges therefore is an important occupational-health concern.

Lead is a ubiquitous metal in the environment, and its adverse effects on human health are well documented. The nervous system is an important target of lead toxicity, which causes adverse cognitive, mood, and psychiatric effects in the central nervous system of adults; causes various peripheral nervous system effects; and has been linked to neurodegenerative diseases. Lead exposure also causes anemia, nephrotoxicity, a variety of adverse reproductive and developmental effects, small increases in blood pressure and an increased risk of hypertension particularly in middle-aged and older people, and various effects in other organ systems, including joint pain and gastrointestinal pain (ATSDR 2007; EPA 2012; NTP 2012).”

___________________

1After the committee completed its evaluation and released the prepublication draft of this report, the Army submitted data on BLLs for Department of the Army civilian personnel working at shoot houses. The Army’s submission can be obtained by contacting the National Research Council’s Public Access Records Office at (202) 334-3543 or paro@nas.edu.”

 

• Characterization of exposure on firing ranges. The committee focused its attention on airborne lead exposures that are most likely to occur on DOD firing ranges. Measurements and evaluations conducted at DOD ranges were used primarily and were supplemented with information on other types of firing ranges.

 http://www.nap.edu/read/18249/chapter/2#4

Potential Health Risks to DOD FIRING-RANGE PERSONNEL from Recurrent Lead Exposure

 

 

 

 

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The Lake Effect by Nancy Nichols

By the time the PCB problem was isolated in January 1976, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency believed that Outboard Marine was delivering approximately nine to ten tons of PCBs to the harbor each day. The PCB content of the sludge at the bottom of the harbor ranged from 240,000 to 500,000 parts per million depending on when and where the sample was taken. That means that either one in two or one in four grains of sand or silt at the bottom of the harbor was not actually sand or silt, but was a PCB instead. page 43

Waukegan would take its turn on the national stage two years later, in 1984,when a U.S. Environmental Protection official, Rita Lavelle, was accused of secretly meeting with lakefront polluters in an effort to strike a cleanup deal that heavily favored industry… In the aftermath of the scandal, the full extent of Waukegan’s chemical contamination was revealed… Eventually, three separate Superfund sites, named after the 1980 federal legislation that allocated funds to clean them up, were designated in Waukegan. Two of the sites are adjacent to the lake… In addition, more than a dozen other sites form what federal and state regulators call an expanded study area, which stretches along the lakefront from one end of town to the other. These smaller sites contain the waste products from a tannery, a steel company, a paint factory, a pharmaceutical company, and a scrap yard. Together these sites contain not just PCBs, but an alphabet soup of pollutants. “Just about every chemical we know to be dangerous to human health is in one of those sites,” Says Margaret Quinn, a professor at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, who specializes in human exposure assessment. In addition to PCBs, these chemicals include benzene and other volatile organic compounds, arsenic. lead, asbestos, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), dioxins, vinyl chloride, and ammonia. Various chemicals among these have been associated with reproductive diseases, learning and attention deficits in children, birth defects, immune system deficiencies, and some forms of cancer.

Was there a relationship between my sister’s cancer and the toxins of our childhood? My sister certainly thought so. And many other people have suspected, often correctly, that elements in their environment have had an effect on their health. Yet because of the long time it takes for a cancer to develop and because of relative mobility of our lives today, it can be challenging to establish a casual link between a disease and its origin.

pages 5 -6

“Ovaries are approximately three centimeters long by one and one-half centimeters wide by one centimeter thick,” writes Ethel Sloan in, “The Biology of Women.”… Whichever edition you consult will tell you that the ovary is about the size of an almond and that it produces the female hormone estrogen. During the monthly menstrual cycle, each ovary forces an egg through a wall of tissue and afterward repairs that rupture in a process called ovulation. “The ovary is no beauty,” writes Natalie Angier in “Woman: An Intimate Geography, “It is scarred and pitted, for each cycle of ovulation leaves behind a blemish where an egg follicle has been emptied of its contents. The older the woman, the more scarred her ovaries will be. It is this continual bursting and repairing–part and parcel of the ovarian life cycle–that makes the ovary vulnerable to cancer.

Scientists have long theorized that as cells multiply each month to repair the breach in the ovarian wall, more opportunities are created for mistakes in the DNA copying process, which in turn increases the chances of a malignant mutation. More ovulations, in other words, mean more chances for mistakes.

Risk factors for the disease therefore include never giving your ovaries a break by being pregnant or having a child. The other risk factor is having a close relative with the disease. That would be my sister, of course, and that would bring our story back home….

Doctors at this hospital and elsewhere have long speculated that there were significant environmental factors associated with ovarian cancer. The vagina provides a runway to the ovaries not simply for sperm but for many other substances as well. Significantly, women who have their tubes tied experience a lower rate of ovarian cancer than those who do not. Some have theorized that this may be because the pathways to the ovaries has been blocked, keeping outside agents at bay.

For example, some researchers have found a link between talcum powder and ovarian cancer–though several other studies have produced conflicting results. Some early forms of talcum may have contained asbestos and thus given researchers their positive findings. Indeed, at least one retrospective study found a much higher disease rate among women who used talc prior to 1960 than those who used is after–giving at least some credence to the idea that the use of asbestos-laden talc increases a woman’s risk of ovarian cancer.

My sister speculated that asbestos had contributed to her illness. A group of naturally occurring fibrous materials that are fire-resistant, asbestos has been thought to cause adverse health effects since the first century. Yet, as writer Paul Brodeur tells us in his book on asbestos, Outrageous Misconduct, its role in causing the disease asbestosis, a noncancerous condition in which the lungs scar so badly that they won’t expand and contract properly, was not well established in medical literature until the 1970s.

In the years before my sister died, when I was an editor for the Harvard Business Review, I worked on a piece written by Bill Sells, the man who had run the Johns-Manville plants in Waukegan in the early 1970s–a time when deaths from asbestosis and other asbestos-related diseases were beginning to occur in the workforce at an alarming rate. After noting that his job included the unenviable task of visiting his sick and dying employees at the local hospital, he offered this description of his first visit to the factory: “The plant lay at the back of a sprawling complex built in the 1920s. Its view of Lake Michigan was obscured by a landfill several stories high. A road wound through this mountain of asbestos-laden scrap, and as I drove through it for the first time I stopped to watch a bulldozer crush a 36-inch sewer pipe. A cloud of dust swirled around my car.” Inside the plant, he said, he found “asbestos-laden dust coating almost every visible surface.”

An EPA official charged with overseeing the cleanup of the Johns-Manville plant, Brad Bradley, has a similar recollection. Standing at the edge of the 350-acre Superfund site that overlooks Lake Michigan, Bradley recalled his first visit there in 1982. He remembers asking an asbestos expert where he thought they would find the fibers. “I think they are everywhere,” said the expert. Indeed, virtually anywhere on the site that Bradley scuffed the ground with his boot, he found the telltale fibers.

People are more likely to connect the fiber with asbestosis than with ovarian cancer. However, a thirty-year study of nearly two thousand women who worked with asbestos while manufacturing gas masks during World War II showed these women to be seven times more likely to die from ovarian cancer than a control group. My sister’s medical history seems to tell a different story, though, and the link between asbestos and ovarian cancer in general does not appear to be a strong one. The ovarian cancer specialist I saw at the clinic was quick to point out that my sister’s record indicated that her cancer was preceded by endometriosis.

The phrase “painful periods” does not begin to describe the torture that my mother and sister endured during menstruation. White and sweating, doubled over with pain, they retreated to the bed or the couch until the pain and the bleeding passed. When I recounted my mother’s experience, the ovarian cancer specialist suggests that my mother also likely suffered from endometriosis.

Endometriosis is a once rare disease that is now common. When the disease was first named and discovered in 1921 by a New York physician, there were only twenty reports of the illness in the medical literature. Today, the National Institutes of Health estimates that roughly 5.5 million women suffer from the disease in the United States, and as many as 89 million women may have it worldwide. An exact number is hard to come by, since the disease can only properly be diagnosed during surgery. Still, about one-third of women of childbearing age suffer some symptoms–including pelvic pain and infertility–and in the United States at least, the average age of onset has been declining…

Endometriosis is a complex condition, and no one is certain what causes it. Some scientists believe it is an immune system disorder. Others believe that women with endometriosis lack the ability to shed cells that have migrated and are growing where they should not be. Other scientists have focused on a genetic component of the disease since it can run in families. A woman with a sister or mother with endometriosis, for example, is three to seven times more likely to get the disease.

The mechanisms of endometriosis are not that different from those that create cancer: they involve cell proliferation, the migration of cells, and a change in their cellular nature. Endometriosis grows unchecked and invades surrounding tissues, and the body’s immune system fails to rid itself of the misplaced lesions. In the same way, the body fails to rid itself of cancerous lesions.

It is often but not always the case that the kind of cancer my sister suffered from, ovarian clear-cell adenocarcinoma, is preceded by endometriosis, and many believe that there is a relationship between the two diseases. Some scientists believe that endometriosis–in certain cases–is a kind of precancerous condition, and others believe that the two diseases spring forth in unison. Other experts theorize that the endometrial cells themselves drive the proliferation of cancer once it has started by producing their own estrogen. Each lesion is capable of increasing the local production of estrogen, so that once the disease takes hold it is capable of feeding itself.

In my sister’s case, cancerous growths arose within her endometrial lesions. Whatever the exact mechanism of disease development, women with the type of ovarian cancer that my sister suffered from have higher rates of endometriosis that the general female population. In one study, about 70 percent of the women with clear-cell ovarian cancer also had endometriosis.

Scientists have long suspected that chemicals of the type found in Waukegan–dioxins, PCBs, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)–play a role in human endometriosis.

pages 75 – 81

Carson died in 1964, but her work and her life serve as a warning to everyone who struggles with cancer. “As we pour millions into research and invest all our hopes in vast programs to find cures for established cases of cancer,” she wrote, “we are neglecting the golden opportunity to prevent, even while we seek to cure.”

Carson’s favorite quote, from Abraham Lincoln, can be found snuggled into her almost daily letters to Freeman, where she explains what keeps her going through her treatments and on to finish her groundbreaking book. It reads: “To sin by silence when they should protest, makes cowards of men.”

page 122

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Inhibition of progenitor cell proliferation in the dentate gyrus of rats following post-weaning lead exposure.

Schneider JS1, Anderson DW, Wade TV, Smith MG, Leibrandt P, Zuck L, Lidsky TI.
Author information

Abstract
Although lead is a potent developmental neurotoxin, the effects of postnatal lead exposure on progenitor cell proliferation in the hippocampus has not been examined. Postnatal day 25 rats were fed a lead containing diet (1500 ppm lead acetate) for 30-35 days and administered bromodeoxyuridine (BrdU, 50 mg/kg, i.p.) during the last 5 days of lead exposure. Animals were killed 24 h after the last BrdU injection. Proliferation of new cells in the subgranular zone and dentate gyrus was significantly decreased in lead-exposed rats compared to control animals that ate a similar diet devoid of lead. These results suggest that postnatal lead exposure can have significant deleterious effects on progenitor cell proliferation and thus the structure and function of the hippocampus.

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15527882

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