By Jan Worth-Nelson
There is no item on the agenda of the Hurley Medical Center Board of Managers meeting today (Wednesday) pertaining to the recent decision by Hurley’s doctors to substitute the word “lead-exposed” for “lead-poisoned” for children who experienced the city’s water crisis.
But several area residents said they hoped members of the public might present their views on the controversial change to the 15-member board of the city’s only public hospital at the regular monthly meeting.
Opportunity for public comment is the first item on the agenda for the meeting, which starts at 6 p.m. The board meets in the Charles White Conference Center. Comments are limited to five minutes and commenters will be asked to fill out an information form, according to an adminstration spokeswoman.
The change in wording emanated from a resolution passed earlier this month by the medical officers’ annual meeting, shepherded by Dr. Hernan Gomez, a toxicologist. The recommended change in wording is built on findings of a study by Gomez and six other authors in an article published in March in the Journal of Pediatrics. The study, analyzing blood lead levels in Flint children over 11 years, stated that blood lead levels (BLL) at the height of the water crisis in 2014 and 2015 were half of the BLL in 2006.
The startling conclusions of the findings led Gomez et al. to assert, in their May letter posted on the Hurley Medical Center Facebook page, that “not a single child in the City of Flint has been lead poisoned from the water switch. Rather, they were lead-exposed.”
They wrote, “Everyone agrees that there was an issue in 2014 – 2015 with BLLs and that any lead level over the lifetime of a child is bad. However, a lead exposure does not equate to a lead poisoning and therefore does not equate to a damaged generation of children in the City of Flint.”
As in the Journal of Pediatrics study, they concluded that what happened in Flint “did not meet the level of an environmental emergency.”
The doctors asserted they had issued their change of wording because the children of Flint “were not poisoned and therefore they don’t have to be burdened by the stigma that the ‘poisoning’ label brings to mind.”
Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a Hurley pediatrician whose work in documenting heightened BLLs in Flint children in the fall of 2015 broke open the Flint story nationwide, was not at the meeting and said she did not agree with her colleagues’ decision. While Gomez first announced the decision was unanimous, Hanna-Attisha said others present in the room said it was not.
“I think we just need to move forward,” she said. Asked what motivated her colleagues to change their wording, she said she did not know. Her book about her life and the water crisis, What the Eyes Don’t See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance and Hope in an American City is about to be released and will be launched locally at the Flint Public Library June 21.
In a March op-ed in the Detroit Free Press, Hanna-Attisha acknowledged that “Flint’s blood lead levels are not the worst in history nor even the worst in the country.” But she has emphasized any amount of lead that gets into children’s bodies is too much, and added screening procedures during the time Flint was on Flint River water were “inadequate to document the extent of Flint’s lead poisoning problem.”
“How many children have to be poisoned for something to become an environmental emergency?” she asked.
The effects of lead in the blood, especially in children, has been well documented for decades. As summarized by Jamie Lincoln Kitman in the March 2000 edition of The Nation, it can cause lowered IQs, reading and learning disabilities, impaired hearing, reduced attention span, hyperactivity, behavioral problems and interference with growth. (See Harold C. Ford’s article on p. 14 of the April, 2018 EVM).
The Hurley doctors’ statement prompted an immediate response from Flint Mayor Karen Weaver.
“Hearing that Hurley doctors are attempting to minimize damages when it comes to the lives of residents’ concerns me,” Weaver stated in a May 22 press release. “That kind of behavior is disrespectful to our community and unbelievably insensitive to what we have endured over the past four years.
“Many still struggle to make the best decisions for their families each and every day due to the uncertainties as it relates to the long term effects of lead in the water they and their children have consumed,” Weaver continued.
“I am personally offended by the decision a few Hurley doctors have made, because it minimizes the tragedy that Flint residents have experienced, through no fault of our own,” Weaver said.
Dr. Pamela Pugh, the city of Flint’s chief medical officer also responded.
“As a public health professional who has advocated for the elimination of childhood lead poisoning for years, I am fascinated by this sudden call to shift the focus to Michigan communities other than Flint.
“This action by the doctors at Hurley appears to be purposefully misleading, or an attempt to detract attention from the decades of credible data that substantiates that there is absolutely no safe level of lead for children anywhere.”
Pugh and Weaver agreed that “Flint children, and adults for that matter, are indeed resilient and there will continue to be a concerted effort to support their development.”
“But this does not negate the fact that children drank water poisoned with lead,” Pugh said. “This entire community, parents especially, will have to work extra hard and use disproportionate resources, in comparison to other communities to mitigate the impact of exposure to lead-tainted water.”
Anna Clark, a Detroit journalist whose book The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy, also is about to come out, also responded.
“Of course, Flint’s children do not deserve to be stigmatized,” Clark wrote in an email to East Village Magazine. “Of course, not every child will experience the consequences of lead exposure in the same way, and of course, the city’s next generation is full of genius and humor and talent; the children deserve absolutely every chance to succeed.
“You know what else they deserve? The truth. Sanitizing the language about the violence that was done will not serve them,” Clark said.
Clark’s book is scheduled to be launched locally at June 23 at Tenacity Brewing.
EVM Editor Jan Worth-Nelson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. EVM staff writer Harold C. Ford contributed to this report, including in his April, 2018 article in the print edition of EVM, “The shape of water for Flint’s children.”