The polluted water coming out of the taps in Flint, Michigan may be worse for children than previously thought, according to the doctor who discovered that the children were at risk of brain damage from the city’s water supply.
Dr. Monda Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician at a local hospital who had raised concerns in the summer of the metal in the water, told The Guardian that between 8,000 and 9,000 children under the age of six are in jeopardy because of the contaminated water in Flint. At least 15 percent of those children have dangerous levels of lead in their blood, she said.
“This is an emergency. People think of disasters as being hurricanes, or tornadoes or ice storms, but this is a disaster right here in Flint that is alarming and absolutely gut-wrenching,” Hanna-Attisha told The Guardian.
Flint’s newly-elected Mayor Karen Weaver declared a state of emergency due to the city’s problematic water system caused by using water from the Flint River. Weaver said damage to children caused by lead exposure is irreversible and the city will need to spend more on special education and mental health services as a result.
Flint switched from Detroit's water system last year to Flint River water in a cost-cutting move while under state emergency financial management. The Flint River was supposed to be an interim source until the city could join a new system getting water from Lake Huron.
But residents complained about the taste, smell and appearance of the water. Officials maintained the water met safety standards, but children were found to have elevated levels of lead in their blood and it was determined that corrosive river water was drawing lead from aging pipes.
Flint returned to Detroit's system in October.
“We’re assuming that the entire population of the city of Flint has been exposed, if you drank the water or cooked with the water. In fact, cooking with the water concentrates the lead levels, Hanna-Attisha added.
A friend urged Hanna-Attisha to test children for increased levels of lead in August. When she presented her results to officials initially, she said she was criticized. After consistent cross-checking with her numbers, officials accepted her findings and switched the water system back.
“Parents are traumatized. What was created here was a toxic soup,” she said.
Weaver was elected in November, unseating the incumbent mayor who led the city during the public health emergency and blamed state and federal agencies for the water problems. Weaver had promised while campaigning to issue an emergency declaration.
Flint Councilman Josh Freeman said he doesn't want residents to expect immediate help with the city's water infrastructure, including lead service lines, because of the declaration. He said it doesn't fix the problem.
"We need to find a way to actually fix the problem," Freeman said.
Hanna-Attisha has urged parents not to panic. Though lead is only detectable in blood for 30 days after exposure, Hanna-Attisha said the effects can be diminished with good nutrition and extra support at school and at home.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.