The city of Flint, Michigan, is living through a nightmare. Its water has become a source of potential lead poisoning for many of its nearly 100,000 residents.

Flint once got its water from Lake Huron via Detroit’s water system. In a 2014 cost-cutting measure, the city began pulling water from the Flint River instead. While this was always intended to be a short-term situation, no one expected the long-term consequences would be so disastrous.

Higher levels of lead began to show up in the blood of local children within just a few months of the switch. Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, director of the pediatric residency program at Hurley Children’s Hospital, as well as other experts sounded the alarm after connecting the increasing lead levels in the children with concurrently high levels of lead in the tap water of certain Flint neighborhoods.

Environmental engineers have explained that the water from the Flint River is more corrosive than the previous source, and that aging plumbing systems containing lead pipes or joints have been leaching the toxic heavy metal into the drinking water for many months now. The state and city made arrangements to switch the city’s water source back to the Detroit system in October, but for some Flint children the damage already may have been done.

Lead can be very toxic to living tissues. At high levels, it causes damage to soft tissues, bone, brain and kidneys. The more exposure one has, the more lead levels in the blood and body can build up. Lead can be deposited in the bones and re-released into the bloodstream long after the initial exposure has passed. Symptoms can show up right away, but it often takes years for the damage to become evident.

Lead exposure is treatable and, more importantly, preventable. Yet once damage is done, especially to the nervous system, it is irreversible.

Both adults and children (and even pets) can be effected by lead toxicity, but children are more susceptible because of their smaller size and because they are still growing and developing. It is this very development that is in danger. It is well known that children with elevated lead levels are more prone to neurological dysfunction and behavior problems.

Excessive lead exposure in children, says the Mayo Clinic, can cause:

  • Developmental delay
  • Learning difficulties
  • Irritability
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Sluggishness and fatigue
  • Anemia
  • Abdominal pain
  • Vomiting
  • Constipation
  • Hearing loss

To this list, we can now add sleep disturbances.

In October, about the same time that doctors in Flint were calling attention to the rising lead levels in their pediatric patients, a team of researchers from the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine were publishing findings linking lead exposure to insomnia, sleeping pill use and excessive daytime sleepiness.

The study by Jianghong Liu and her colleagues highlights results from examining more than 600 children in China where lead exposure, from a variety of sources, is a serious and common problem. They found that when children were measured with blood lead levels of 10 mcg/dl or greater at age 3-5, they were far more likely to have sleep problems when they were 9-11 years old, even if their blood lead levels had dropped to normal by that time.

As reported by these children and their parents, the kids had twice as much difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep as their lead-free cohorts. They also suffered from daytime sleepiness and were three times more likely to be using medications to help them sleep.

The Centers for Disease Control has stated “there is no safe lead level for children.” A blood level of 5 mcg/dl is grounds for initiating investigation and examining an individual for signs and symptoms of toxicity. When Gov. Rick Snyder of Michigan declared a state of emergency Tuesday for the city of Flint, his decision was based, in part, on the fact that at least 4 percent of the city’s children had been identified as having blood lead levels in this potentially toxic zone.

Detailed surveys reveal that the problem is even greater in certain sections of town. One neighborhood is reporting over 15 percent of its children exceeding the CDC’s threshold level.

Right now, the focus of the officials and regulatory agencies in Flint must be on stopping the flow of poison water, assessing the magnitude of the exposure and setting in place systems that can accurately monitor and quantify the damage done. For the residents, especially the parents of children and adolescents, there will be many years ahead when they must remain vigilant and watch their families for the signs of lead based damage.

For all involved, there may be many sleepless nights ahead.

Patty Tucker, a medical practitioner for over two decades, has specialized in sleep medicine since 2001.

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