How The Avoidable Flint Water Crisis Hugely Impacted Kids’ Educational Achievement

A decade ago, in April 2014, the source of the water for the town of Flint in Michigan was switched from Lake Huron and the Detroit River to the Flint River. The move by local and state administration was made to save $5-7 million, but ended up exposing 100,000 people – including up to 12,000 children – to lead in their water. A new study has shown how this affected the educational outcome of school-age children for years to come.

Lead poisoning is very dangerous, and children are particularly impacted by it. It can be fatal, and can also lead to damage to the brain, intellectual disabilities, memory and behavioral problems, and lower cognitive functioning when they get older.

Scientists looked at how the crisis impacted school children grades 3 to 8, and discovered that math achievement was massively reduced and the rate of special needs classification increased – especially among boys – following the Flint Water Crisis. The reduction in math achievement was particularly prevalent among the younger students and those of low socioeconomic status – and in Flint, 9 in 10 students qualify as economically disadvantaged.

Lead Piping Corrosion And Its Impact 

Authorities in Michigan did not consider that the switching of water to the Flint River might affect the lead piping in the system. Officials did not use corrosion inhibitors for the more acidic water of the river, which led to lead leaching from the pipes into the water supply. Residents reported the change in color, taste, and smell of their water. Despite issuing some warnings, officials refused to face the unfolding crisis – even going as far as showing Flint Mayor Dayne Walling drinking Flint tap water on local television to show it was “safe”.

Two months later, a research team led by pediatrician Dr Mona Hanna-Attisha showed that the number of children with elevated levels of lead had doubled after the city switched its water source. A few weeks later, three schools tested positive for dangerous levels of lead in the water.

In this new study, the team used the type of pipes of children’s homes as a proxy for possible lead exposure. They found that children from homes with both safer copper pipes and more dangerous lead ones experienced those drawbacks. The crisis certainly affected children – but this finding doesn’t allow a direct connection to lead exposure.

Children consume water outside the house, so they might be getting exposed there. There might be other lead fixtures in the system even when copper pipes are in place, thus still leaching lead into the water. Plus, there could be some psychosocial effects of the crisis that have affected the kids beyond exposure to lead alone.

The Piling Costs Of The Flint Water Crisis

In November 2021, a $626 million settlement for the victims of the crisis was announced – although this has been subject to delays, with residents still not being paid into 2024 –  and there was $400 million in state and federal spending to make sure Flint had clean water and copper pipes. Those numbers do not include the health cost on the population or the social costs of how such a crisis affected the younger population of Flint and their families.

“Existing estimates of the health effects of the crisis, ranging from 50 to 400 million dollars, use only the lead effects,” the authors write. “This study ought to draw attention to the large potential costs of these water crises and motivate preventative measures, which by comparison are cheap,” the authors wrote.

The paper is published in the journal Science Advances.

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