So read the headline in the New York Times. I was drawn to it immediately for a couple of reasons. First, whatever happened to that situation in Flint the media was so obsessed with for months in 2016? Second, during that obsession, that same media blared headline after headline declaring how children had been poisoned by government agencies gone wrong and now here are two doctors, toxicology experts no less, declaring the Flint water “crisis” to largely be a hoax.
With headlines like this still fresh in many readers’ minds, let’s look at what Doctors Hernán Gómez and Kim Dietrich had to say on the subject just last week:
The Children of Flint Were Not ‘Poisoned’
FLINT, Mich. — Words are toxic, too. Labeling Flint’s children as “poisoned,” as many journalists and activists have done since the city’s water was found to be contaminated with lead in 2014, unjustly stigmatizes their generation.
Let’s be clear. It’s unacceptable that any child was exposed to drinking water with elevated lead concentrations. We know that lead is a powerful neurotoxicant, that there is no safe level, that the very young are particularly vulnerable and that long-term exposure to low to moderate levels of lead is associated with decreased I.Q.s and other cognitive and behavioral problems, including criminal behavior.
But there is no reason to expect that what happened for a year and a half in Flint will inevitably lead to such effects. The casual use of the word “poisoned,” which suggests that the affected children are irreparably brain-damaged, is grossly inaccurate. In a city that already battles high poverty and crime rates, this is particularly problematic.
…In fact, the C.D.C. recommends medical treatment only for blood lead levels at or above 45 micrograms per deciliter. Not a single child in Flint tested this high. This was a surprise for several visiting celebrities, who requested a visit to the “lead ward” of Hurley Children’s Hospital.
Nonetheless, the reference level has been misinterpreted by laypeople — and even public health officials — as a poisoning threshold.
After Flint’s water was switched from Detroit’s municipal system to the Flint River, the annual percentage of Flint children whose blood lead levels surpassed the reference level did increase — but only from 2.2 percent to 3.7 percent. One of us, Dr. Gómez, along with fellow researchers, reported these findings in a study in the June issue of The Journal of Pediatrics, which raised questions about how risks and statistics have been communicated regarding this issue.
For comparison, consider the fact that just 20 years ago, nearly 45 percent of young children in Michigan had blood lead levels above the current reference level. If we are to be consistent in the labeling of Flint children as “poisoned,” what are we to make of the average American who was a child in the 1970s or earlier? Answer: He has been poisoned and is brain-damaged. And poisoned with lead levels far above, and for a greater period, than those observed in Flint.
…People were understandably dismayed by the government’s apparent failure to act quickly to switch back the water once concerns were raised in Flint. But based on this more comprehensive view of the data, we are forced to admit that the furor over this issue seems way out of proportion to the actual dangers to the children from lead exposure.
…In the case of Flint, even when taking into account the change in the water supply, the decrease in blood lead levels over the last 11 years has actually been a public health success. The Journal of Pediatrics study found that between 2006 and 2015, the percentage of Flint children testing above the reference level decreased substantially, to 3.7 percent from 11.8 percent.
It is therefore unfair and inaccurate to point a finger at Flint and repeatedly use the word “poisoned.” All it does is terrify the parents and community members here who truly believe there may be a “generation lost” in this city, when there is no scientific evidence to support this conclusion.
According to these two experts in toxicology, nearly the entirety of the Flint “water crisis” that received wall-to-wall media coverage in 2016 was a hoax. Let that sink in and then add it to the numerous other exaggerations the media has been guilty of perpetrating. Is it any wonder public trust in the media is at an all-time low? Flint water was far safer to drink in 2016 than it was in the 1970’s and yet the media represented a very different story absent those facts.
It leads more and more of us to wonder what else, or who else, the media is lying to us about. If journalists are so quick to lie about children being poisoned, is there anything they won’t willfully distort and/or misrepresent?
D.W. Ulsterman is an author, educator, socio-political commentator, and the creator of the popular San Juan Islands Mystery series.
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