Lead-contaminated water prompts a state of emergency—and a PR crisis

Amid claims from pediatricians and parents that thousands of kids have been exposed to dangerous levels of the poison, Flint’s mayor takes action.

The PR floodgates have opened in Flint, Michigan, and some folks at Hurley Medical Center couldn’t be happier.

Their claims that thousands of children living in urban areas have tested for dangerously high levels of lead have finally gotten the attention—and action—needed to address the crisis.

Over the past several months, pediatrician Mona Hanna-Attisha and a Virginia Tech researcher and lead expert, Marc Edwards, have spent a lot of time together. They have compiled scores of scientific data showing that the percentage of children with elevated lead levels had doubled as a result of the city’s tap water.

On Monday night, Mayor Karen Weaver declared a state of emergency; a memo that was shared on Twitter by a local TV reporter. By Tuesday morning, the news had spread like wildfire.


Weaver wrote that lead poisoning “will result in learning disabilities and the need for special education and mental health services and an increase in the juvenile justice system.” The declaration seeks help from the state and federal government.

Politics, press, pediatricians—and the feds

During her recent mayoral campaign, the Detroit News says Weaver pledged to issue such a declaration. Concerns about cloudy and foul-smelling tap water in certain city ZIP codes began soon after Flint switched its water source from the Detroit system to the Flint River.

Now, the cost-saving measure comes with an even higher price tag: Young children who may develop lifelong brain, neurological and other chronic health disorders. Aging pipes from the Flint River, according to multiple news sources, were encrusted with lead particles that flowed into the water supply.

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As Attisha worked at city-owned Hurley Medical Center and Edwards built a website, FlintWaterStudy.org, to document the findings, they had to carefully dance around the politics and health issues involved. Some local officials weren’t receptive to the lead poisoning data the two were sharing with citizens and community leaders.

For example, Edwards posted emails and other correspondence he had exchanged with press officers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Michigan governor’s office. Following numerous interactions that dismissed the researchers’ concerns, a press conference was held Oct. 2. USA Today featured a lengthy story on the “Erin Brokovich-type” community health risk:

Mayor Dayne Walling joined state officials—environmental, health and public relations—at the microphone in front
of a packed room of reporters. “We understand many have lost confidence in the drinking water. We need to build
that back. We need to do that more,” Dan Wyant of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality said in front
of a line of cameras. Reporters tapped away on keyboards. Outside: protesters.

As doctors, journalists and other advocates tried to access data through the Freedom of Information Act, they, too, hit a few walls. There may have been a leak to reporters as well:

When politicians, state agencies and public information officers who doubted the statistics and test results affecting some of the area’s most needy families, Attisha has quietly gotten her victory.

Wurfel, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality spokesman, apologized to Attisha for calling her irresponsible.

“I had the opportunity to apologize … I was grateful for the opportunity to do it,” Wurfel told the Free Press in October. “I will be the first to say, I came on a little strong on this because I believed the numbers we had in the moment.”


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