Newswise — ITHACA, N.Y. – As many as a quarter of children in Flint, Michigan – approximately seven times the national average – may have experienced elevated blood lead levels after the city’s water crisis, and more children should have been screened, new Cornell University research finds.In surveys, caregivers of nearly 250 children reported that 77% had been screened since the crisis began in 2014 – a “moderately high but not robust” total given that there’s no known safe level of lead exposure, the researchers determined.Among children who were screened, the surveys showed, one in four received a clinician’s diagnosis of elevated blood lead levels – far above average nationally and in Flint prior to the crisis. Those children were significantly more likely to also experience issues such as learning delays, hyperactivity, emotional agitation or skin rashes – with some rates higher among Black and low-income children.The symptoms can’t definitively be linked to the city’s tap water, but many are scientifically associated with bacterial and chemical contamination in water, said Jerel Ezell, assistant professor of Africana studies at Cornell, and lead author of the study.“Our methods allow us to say that there was a substantial uptick in negative health outcomes among Flint children following the water crisis,” said Ezell.In addition to answering questions about lead screening and diagnoses, caregivers reported that after the crisis their children had experienced – beyond a “normal” level – hyperactivity (44%); emotional agitation (39%); comprehension issues or learning delays (29%); and skin rashes (39%).The conditions represent “an excess burden of cases well above and beyond what we would epidemiologically forecast,” Ezell said.Study authors said the results highlight a need for ongoing monitoring of health risks potentially linked to the water crisis, and to address systemic and other factors that limited lead screening to potentially just three-quarters or less of the city’s children.“This is substantially less than what clinicians recommended after the water crisis, when you’d hope to get at least 90% or so of the child population screened – especially considering the lead screenings, like COVID-19 tests, were free and didn’t require health insurance,” Ezell said. “This signals that Flint parents either didn’t trust the lead screening tests, didn’t have a way to get to the screening sites or didn’t think the water crisis was as serious as it had been portrayed, and almost certainly that officials also poorly communicated the need for the screenings and how to access them.”In future research, Ezell plans to report Flint residents’ beliefs about what happened and why, insight that could help promote truth and reconciliation and identify opportunities to rebuild trust in public and health care institutions.“When government and health care institutions don’t have real skin in the game and aren’t made to be accountable, you have to build confidence and strengthen resources to help communities protect themselves,” he said.For additional information, see this Cornell Chronicle story.

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