In search of information in Flint: Back in 1939, Mr. Smith famously went to Washington.
At the end of the famous film about him, Mr. Smith gave a speech. Last night, at the end of her trip to Michigan, Rachel Maddow gave a version of the same speech.
We won't discuss her speech today. Instead, let's list a few areas in which we could use more information concerning events in Flint.
The Maddow Show rarely traffics in that tedious product. Last night's town hall conversation was highly scattershot, with several major carts arriving before their horses.
Below, we note two areas where more information would be journalistically helpful.
Concerning possible health effects:
One of Maddow's guests last night was Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha. From January through September of last year, she conducted a survey of children in Flint.
Hanna-Attisha found that 4.0 percent of the children she tested had lead in their blood exceeding 5 micrograms per deciliter, the current marker of an elevated lead level. According to Hanna-Attisha's study, this compared to 2.1 percent of Flint children with elevated levels before the switch in water supply.
Here's our question: What sorts of health effects can we expect in the wake of such exposure to lead?
On the Maddow Show, you will repeatedly hear about "mass poisoning," with Rick Snyder's name tossed in. The language is dramatic, exciting. But what sorts of actual health effects might we expect from that degree of exposure?
Because we watch Maddow's show, we can't really answer that question. Below, you see part of what Kevin Drum wrote in his recent post about Flint. He refers to the highly informative graphic he composed concerning lead levels in Flint:
DRUM (1/26/16): I've added a line that shows the percentage of children with lead levels above 10 m/d. I wouldn't want my kids to have anything above 5 m/d, but 10 is where things really start to get scary.That isn't very precise concerning possible health effects, but that wasn't Drum's focus. Drum seems to say that the real problems start at that higher level of exposure. That said, do you have any idea what sorts of health effects are likely with a 5-microgram exposure?
If you've been watching the Maddow Show, the answer is no, you pretty much don't. Maddow rarely wastes her time giving you information.
Below, we offer a second very general assessment of the possible health effects. This assessment came from a journalist who is experienced in the area of lead exposure:
"...5 micrograms per deciliter is a pretty conservative level. It doesn't cause a ton of damage. But it definitely causes some: a couple of IQ points on average, plus other damage at about that level."
Is that accurate? We have no personal knowledge in this area. We'll only note that the Maddow Show hasn't really tried to inform the public about this basic point. (We also haven't seen much of an effort in our major newspapers.)
No one wants to lose IQ points, of course. As Drum has reported in recent years, other undesirable effects are often associated with exposure to lead.
With that in mind, we'd like to see real information about the types of effects we're discussing. While we're at it, remember this:
Before the switch in water supply, 2.1 percent of children in Flint were already recording that elevated lead level, according to Hanna-Attisha's study. According to Drum, the national percentage was 2.6 percent from 2007 through 2010. (This seems to be the most recent information available.)
We don't know what the national percentage is today. But then, we watch Maddow every night.
Once again, here's the oddness of the way this event has been discussed. That previous reading—2.1 percent of children in Flint with an elevated lead level—was creating exactly zero discussion. But when the percentage rose to 4.0 percent, Maddow decided we were in the grip of "an American disaster."
Does that seem to make sense to you? We'd like to see it explained.
Meanwhile, Maddow makes no mention of the national rate of exposure, which seems to be somewhat similar to the rate in Flint. To what extent is this a wider problem? Why isn't that being explained and discussed?
Concerting the current state of Flint's water:
How much lead can be found in Flint's water today? In this morning's New York Times, Julie Bosman offers a capsule account of the way the problem started:
BOSMAN (1/28/16): Concerns about the water were first raised in 2014, after Flint, under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager, switched from Lake Huron water delivered by Detroit to water taken from the polluted Flint River. Lead that leached from the pipes, a result of a lack of corrosion control, has been blamed for illnesses, rashes and other ailments. The problem has persisted even as the city has switched back to getting its water from Lake Huron through Detroit.When the Flint River became Flint's water supply, "a lack of corrosion control" created the leaching of lead from lead water pipes. Based on other reading, we understand that to mean that engineers failed to use the chemicals which were needed to create that "corrosion control," to forestall that leaching.
If our understanding is correct, it was that failure which produced the leaching of lead from the pipes, a problem which continued even after Flint switched back to Lake Huron water. That said, Bosman offers this additional note:
BOSMAN: State officials said they had increased the level of phosphates in the water to coat the inside of the pipes, an initial step that could help alleviate the problem. Keith Creagh, the interim director of the State Department of Environmental Quality, said that lead levels in Flint had dropped significantly.Is water quality improving as the inside of the pipes get coated again? (In the briefest flicker of a discussion last night, you saws that coating of the pipes referred to as the "biofilm.")
Is water quality improving as the the pipes get coated again? Bosman quotes an official making that claim. But in this morning's Washington Post, Lenny Bernstein offers actual data from that same official:
BERNSTEIN (1/28/16): Keith Creagh, director of the state Department of Environmental Quality, said the state was continuing to sample Flint water for lead and that "things are trending better." Of 2,577 samples analyzed, 93.7 percent had less than 15 parts per billion of lead and 85 percent had less than 5 parts per billion.If those data are correct, and if Bernstein's analysis is sound, that seems to mean that 94 percent of current samples fit within EPA guidelines. In our search for information, we'd like to see knowledgeable people discuss what that might means.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency recommends that homeowners and municipalities move to reduce any lead level higher than 15 parts per billion, but some health researchers say there actually may be no safe level for lead in drinking water.
By the way:
What are comparable readings like elsewhere in the nation? Maddow persistently treats Flint in a vacuum, as if it's a stand-alone disaster-unto-itself. In this way, she fails to put the situation into two wider contexts. She fails to discuss lead exposure in Flint before the recent government failure. Perhaps more significantly, she fails to discuss lead exposure around the country as a whole.
Do other kids in the country count? Or are we just going to ratchet excitement about exposure in Flint?
On the Maddow show, you get a lot of shameless clowning, mixed with a lot of proselytization.
Information? Not so much. On one topic after another, we'd call it a toxic blend.
Tomorrow, we'll attempt to outline a basic question: Do Flint's pipes have to be replaced, or can they be recoated? Professor Edwards tried to discuss that question last night, but the discussion scattershot all around.
That said, how much do you know about health effects? About the current state of Flint's water? How much so you know about the rest of the country? How many other kids, in other places, have elevated lead levels too?
These seem like basic questions to us. We'll grant you, they could be excitement killers.
Will we ever be told?