ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
The water in Flint, Mich., is probably raising lead levels in young kids. That's the latest alarming news to come out of the city, which switched its source of tap water a year and a half ago, triggering a chain of problems. Sarah Hulett, of Michigan Radio, has the story.
SARAH HULETT, BYLINE: Lee Anne Walters has been living kind of a nightmare for the last several months.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Laughter).
LEE ANNE WALTERS: Go inside, buddy.
HULETT: At her house on the edge of this blue-collar city, we meet her 4-year-old son, Gavin.
WALTERS: Hey, Gavin?
GAVIN WALTERS: What?
WALTERS: What do we say about the water?
GAVIN: Don't drink the water. The water is bad. We want clean water now.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Unintelligible).
WALTERS: They've been to enough rallies. (Laughter).
HULETT: Water quality became an issue here in Flint after April of 2014. That's when the city, in a dispute with Detroit, quit buying its water and instead signed on with a new system that will draw water from Lake Huron. Thing is, that new system won't be online until next year. So in the interim, with assurances from the state that it would be safe, the city decided to pump water from the Flint River. The problems were immediate. First E. coli then dangerously high levels of a chemical from all the chlorine the city had to treat the water with to kill the E. coli. Lee Anne Walters says her entire family started breaking out in rashes. But it wasn't the worst of it. In February, the city tested her water for lead, and then she got a frantic phone call...
WALTERS: ...From the water department, telling me to please make sure my kids didn't drink the water, make sure they're not - you know, don't mix their juice with it, don't give them any water because they had never seen a number that high for lead.
HULETT: Then she took Gavin in to be tested for lead. He'd been tested before the city switched its water source. He had a level of two. That's two micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood. After the switch, his level was 6.5. The CDC says a five is much higher than most children. It also says there's no safe level of lead exposure, and the effects, like lower IQ, are irreversible.
Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha is a pediatrician at Hurley Children's Hospital, which processes all the city's lead tests. She compared lead levels in kids before and after the city switched its water source.
MONA HANNA-ATTISHA: My research shows that lead levels have gone up. I cannot say it's from the water, but that's, you know, the thing that has happened.
HULETT: Hanna-Attisha found that the rate of high lead levels nearly doubled citywide after the switch. She released her findings late last week. The next day, the city put out a lead advisory urging people to flush their pipes and install inexpensive filters.
Dayne Walling is Flint's mayor.
DAYNE WALLING: You know, as a father, I want every family and household in the city of Flint to be safe and secure.
HULETT: Walling and state officials say that means coming up with what's called a corrosion control plan. Here's the thing, the Flint River isn't full of lead, but the water is highly corrosive, much more so than the Detroit water Flint used to buy. Basically, the water is eating the lead from service lines and solder as it makes its way to people's faucets.
Marc Edwards is an environmental engineering professor at Virginia Tech who has looked at lead contamination in several cities, including Flint. He says Flint isn't the worst he's seen, but it's not good, either. He says the city should have been treating the water from the outset to make it less corrosive.
MARC EDWARDS: It was clearly a failure of government agencies to do their job to protect the public.
HULETT: State officials insist they've done everything according to the law. But for families with children who have elevated lead levels, that assurance likely offers little comfort. For NPR News, I'm Sarah Hulett.