FLINT AND FICTITION: Terrify the children well!


Whole city poisoned, she said:
In July of 2018, their column appeared on the op-ed page of the New York Times.

Who wrote the column in question? According to the Times' identity line, "Dr. Gómez and Dr. Dietrich are experts in toxicology and environmental health." Indeed, where their column appears on line, the Times describes their credentials further:
Hernán Gómez, an associate professor at the University of Michigan, emergency medicine pediatrician and medical toxicologist at Hurley Medical Center, was the lead author of the study “Blood Lead Levels of Children in Flint, Michigan: 2006-2016.” Kim Dietrich, a professor of epidemiology and environmental health at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, is the principal investigator of the Cincinnati Lead Study.
None of this means that Gomez and Dietrich will automatically be right in every assessment they make. That said, their column appeared beneath a striking headline—a headline which sought to refute several years' worth of irresponsible, scary claims delivered on MSNBC:
The Children of Flint Were Not ‘Poisoned’
Outrageously, Gomez and Dietrich were stating an outrageous view. The children of Flint had not been poisoned, the pair of experts now said!

Are Gomez and Dietrich allowed to make such statements? Their thoroughly outrageous column outrageously started like this:
GOMEZ AND DIETRICH (7/23/18): 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.
"Words are toxic too," the pair of alleged experts said. In their most outrageous statement, they even said this:
With regard to the children of Flint, the casual use of the word “poisoned” is grossly inaccurate.
So the experts said. And as you can see from what we posted, they also said this, right at the start of their column:
There's no reason to expect that the Flint water problem will inevitably lead to "decreased I.Q.s and other cognitive and behavioral problems, including criminal behavior.
As President Trump himself might have asked, where do they get these jokers? But uh-oh! As Gomez and Dietrich continued, they began presenting some of the basic data which seem to be relevant here. If we care about the children of Flint, we need to consider these data:
GOMEZ AND DIETRICH (continuing directly): In the mid-1970s, the average American child under the age of 5 had a blood lead level of 14 micrograms per deciliter. The good news is that by 2014 it had fallen dramatically, to 0.84 micrograms per deciliter, largely because of the banning of lead in paint and the phaseout of lead in gasoline, among other measures.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now considers a blood lead level in children of 5 micrograms per deciliter and higher to be a “reference level.” This measure is intended to identify children at higher risk and set off communitywide prevention activities.
Good grief! As recently as the mid-1970s, when many cable news watchers were young, the average American child had a blood lead level of 14 micrograms per deciliter. Today, though, thanks to improved environmental factors, the average reading, nationwide, is less than 1 microgram per deciliter.

Today, the experts seemed to say, kids are considered to be at higher risk if their reading goes above 5 micrograms per deciliter. That's way below the average reading for the average American child in the 1970s—and as they continued, Gomez and Dietrich reported what happened in Flint:
GOMEZ AND DIETRICH (continuing directly): 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.
Before Flint's water problem started, 2.2% of the city's kids had readings above the 5 micrograms per deciliter "reference level." As a result of the water crisis, that percentage did indeed increase—but only to 3.7 percent of the city's kids.

Ideally, you wouldn't want any kids to display such blood/lead levels. But might we repeat the basic point of comparison offered by Gomez and Dietrich? In the mid-1970s, the average reading, across the whole country, was almost three times that high!

Might these data help us put the Flint water problem in in some sort of perspective? As they continued, Gomez and Dietrich tried to make it so clear that even the modern "cable news star" would be able to puzzle it out:
GOMEZ AND DIETRICH: 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.
Gomez and Dietrich were making a basic point. They were suggesting that people were overstating the actual situation when they kept saying that the children of Flint had been "poisoned." As they continued, they made their most outrageous statement of all—and they tried to inform the public about some basic facts:
GOMEZ AND DIETRICH (continuing directly): 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.

Furthermore, the focus on Flint seems to be distracting the public from a far more widespread problem.
Although blood lead levels have long been declining nationwide, there remain many trouble spots. Right now in Michigan, 8.8 percent of children in Detroit, 8.1 percent of children in Grand Rapids and an astounding 14 percent of children in Highland Park surpass the C.D.C. reference level. Flint is at 2.4 percent. A comprehensive analysis of blood lead levels across the United States reveals at least eight states with blood lead levels higher than Flint’s were during the water switch.
Are Gomez and Dietrich permitted to say such things? The experts claimed that "the furor" over the problem in Flint seemed to be "way out of proportion to the actual dangers to the children." And ohourgod, they even said this:
Blood lead levels are substantially higher in other cities, and are even higher across entire states.
Does anyone give a flying fig about the children who live in those places? The answer to that question is obvious, as has been for a long time. That said, this is the way our species functions, anthropologists have glumly said.

In their article from July 2018, Gomez and Dietrich were reporting remarkable data about lead exposure in the recent American past—in the decades before leaded gasoline was outlawed. They explained that the lead exposure in Flint had been dwarfed, across the country, by the exposure to lead of that recent past.

They were also reporting that undesirable lead exposure exists in many communities. "It is clear that lead exposure is not one city’s problem, but the entire nation’s," they said.

For the record, none of this information was new when this column appeared. Kevin Drum had reported similar data, again and again, in his blog at Mother Jones. We'll link you to this one post again. You can google up many more such discussions by Drum.

All that said, so what? On MSNBC, the corporate channel's leading star kept saying that the entire city of Flint had been "poisoned" during the water crisis. Despite her status as Our Own Rhodes Scholar, she never told her misused viewers about the wider range of actual facts which Drum and others had bruited.

In our view, that cable star's judgment is so poor that she shouldn't be on the air. Her treatment of Flint was especially gruesome because it was so obvious that she was mainly interested in using the topic as a way to get the Republican governor of Michigan thrown into jail.

(In such ways, we liberals get pandered to, tribally pleasured, on this particular TV show.)

Along the way,
a reporter for the New Yorker had reported the way the children of Flint were being affected by all the exciting hyperbole. This is part of what happens people like Maddow sift facts in the way Maddow does:
STILLMAN (1/15/17): Key shared a personal story about the son of a family friend who had begun acting out in school. The boy’s mother had come to Key for help. When Key asked the boy what was going on, he replied, “Well, they said I’m not going to be smart anyway.”

“These kids are internalizing the messages about how the lead is affecting them,” Key said.


As their last day in Flint drew to a close, Shankar and Tucker-Ray hurried to a final meeting. They had arranged to talk with a disabled Gulf War veteran and community activist named Art Woodson, who didn’t think much of the federal government. At a local municipal building, where an enlarged photograph of corroded lead pipes adorned one wall, Woodson told Shankar about his worry that local kids would give up when lead’s symptoms surfaced, or even before. “What I see,” he said, “is hopelessness.”
Thanks to people like Maddow (and her corporate bosses), the public was being massively misinformed—and children were becoming convinced that they were irreparably damaged. Gomez and Dietrich finished their column by raising this basic point:
GOMEZ AND DIETRICH: 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.
We should stop scaring the children well, the experts outrageously said.

That said, our upper-end journalism runs on fictitions; it has done so for many years. Our journalists love their simpleton story lines and their studied avoidance of information. At present, they especially seem to enjoy pretending that they care about black kids.

The New York Times is the leading proponent of this so-called "dullard journalism." And so, it came to pass, as the gods of fictition decreed that it must:

There's nothing but damaged kids in Flint! So this ridiculous newspaper said, atop its front page, on Thursday, November 7.

As we await the start of Mister Trump's war, information and data no longer exist. It's nothing but silly fictitions now, or so leading experts have said.


  1. "None of this means that Gomez and Dietrich will automatically be right in every assessment they make."

    Well, it's nice that at least some of the goebellsian media's "experts" refuse to follow the script and help solidify 'the narrative'.

    But I'm sure it'll be corrected soon. Federal and state prosecutors are probably already busy, examining the files of Dr. Gómez and Dr. Dietrich...

  2. No amount of lead is safe for children. Zero, none. If a toxicologist objects to the term "poisoning" to refer to any amount of a naturally occurring substance in water, it may be because of intent, not the damage levels involved. If there is no safe level of lead exposure for children, those responsible for the water supply should try to keep ALL lead out of water. To the extent they didn't do that, they are responsible, regardless of the word choice preference of these two experts recruited by folks wishing to avoid lawsuits by anxious parents.

    And whose side does Somerby take? Not the parents (who are proxy for the kids). He sides with those who allowed lead in the water. Just like a good Republican, conservative, defender of business and industry, defender of the exploiters against the angry populace who placed their trust in Flint officials, because they had no choice.

    Somerby, defender of the status quo and the wrongdoers, just like a good liberal.

    1. If there is no safe level of lead exposure for children, those responsible for the water supply should try to keep ALL lead out of water. To the extent they didn't do that, they are responsible,….

      Sure, ethically. (Legally, I think they’re gonna skate.) Who argues otherwise? Not TDH.

      two experts recruited by folks wishing to avoid lawsuits by anxious parent

      I can’t find a cite that says that either Hernán Gómez or Kim Dietrich has appeared as an expert witness in any lawsuit over the water in Flint, Michigan. Do you have one? In any case, expert witnesses help people defend lawsuits; they don’t play any part in avoiding them.

      [TDH] sides with those who allowed lead in the water.

      The blog entry was about the reporting on the lead crisis in Flint. Did you miss that? Is your inability to focus a one-time thing or has it become chronic? You may wish to get your own lead levels checked.

  3. Why is 1970 used as a baseline? It seems like it was peak lead due to autos, before more emission controls were implemented.

  4. My theory is that Trump went to the hospital abruptly in order to take the focus off impeachment and refocus the news cycle on himself.

    Look how steadfastly Somerby ignores the impeachment proceedings, like a good conservative minion of the right. Not even an article about how liberals are celebrating too soon, or some such.

    And look how Somerby ignores the increase in special ed diagnoses in favor of two experts (who are good when they agree with him but bad (elitist) otherwise) assuring everyone that there is nothing going on with the water.

    It would be easy for a parent to reassure the kids that as long as they are doing OK in school, they need not worry, but what about the kids who are demonstrably not OK? Is it better for parents to just tell them they are stupid instead of saying that maybe they drank too much lead? It matters how you explain bad things that happen to kids, and telling them that they are making a fuss over nothing when they are struggling in school, is called gaslighting. There is a special place in hell for adults who gaslight kids.

    1. You need to look up the term gaslighting. It would be gaslighting to tell struggling kids that they're not really struggling. It would be lying to tell them they're permanently damaged if their lead levels couldn't have caused damage. Likewise, telling them they've sustained no injury if their lead levels were high enough to cause damage.

  5. “It’s OK, Flint black kids. You weren’t poisoned. Due to a cost-saving scheme, you were merely exposed for 18 months to an elevated level of a serious neurotoxin that affects IQ even in small amounts. But don’t worry. A couple of scientists say you probably weren’t harmed in a large scale way, maybe. Hopefully.

    Now, prepare yourselves for a future where you perform terribly on standardized tests compared to your white peers, which means you won’t get into really good schools and will likely end up destitute on the streets of Flint.

    But we sure don’t want you to feel badly about yourselves because of some minor lead non-crisis. Liberals suck, amirite?”

    This has been a message to the black kids of Flint from TDH.

    1. Dude, you gotta stop eating those old paint chips. It's not good for you.

  6. It is ironic that Somerby complains about the Times’ coverage of Flint (the recent article by Green) by citing...something else that also appeared in the Times (the Gómez piece).

    Somerby could also note that scientific findings differ based on various factors. Although Somerby says “None of this means that Gomez and Dietrich will automatically be right in every assessment they make”, he presents their arguments without rebuttal.

  7. “Thanks to people like Maddow (and her corporate bosses), the public was being massively misinformed”

    Somerby has the timeline a little screwed up here. The crisis became public in 2014. Maddow was reporting on it by 2015.

    Gómez published his findings in 2018. They were unknown to Maddow, and indeed, to the world, when the crisis began.

    It could and perhaps should be argued that the attention paid by Maddow and others at the beginning of the crisis brought a needed focus to it, which resulted in a faster, more concerted effort to correct the problems and to reduce the long term damage that would otherwise most certainly have occurred.

    1. It could, but perhaps shouldn't. What happens when the next piece of Republican malfeasance pops up, and people dismiss RM because she lied about the results of this current piece of Republican malfeasance?

  8. Bob,
    I'm with you.
    Lead is good for kids. Especially black kids.
    You and Drum are the leading authorities.

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