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Federal agency sends public health "strike team" to Flint

Steve Carmody
Michigan Radio
A child is tested for lead at Flint's Brownell Elementary School in November.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced yesterday afternoon they’ve sent a “public health strike team” to Flint.

HHS says it has sent in more than a dozen officers with the Commissioned Corps. That’s a uniformed service of public health experts.

They’ll be doing follow-up medical visits with kids whose tests have come back with elevated levels of lead in their blood.

We don’t know yet how many kids they’ll be visiting. The department did not make anyone available for an interview yesterday.

Experts say there’s no safe level of lead exposure.

Lead is known to cause brain damage and behavior problems in kids. The damage is irreversible.

"Our kids had every obstacle to success, and then they got lead." — Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha with Hurley Medical Center spoke to a packed auditorium yesterday at the School of Public Health at the University of Michigan.

“Our kids had every obstacle to success, and then they got lead,” she said.

Dr. Hanna-Attisha is the Flint pediatrician who found the number of kids with elevated levels of lead in their blood nearly doubledafter Flint switched its water source.

Concern about babies

She told the audience that her team and the state have grossly underestimated the number of kids exposed to lead.

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha
Credit Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha spoke to University of Michigan students and faculty yesterday. She uncovered elevated blood lead levels in Flint kids after the city switched its water source.

She says routine lead screening would not catch spikes in lead in infants.

“Because we screen for lead at one and two, and the half life of lead is only 28-30 days,” Hanna-Attisha said. “So we missed the peaks of these babies. So these babies who were on formula: imagine these moms — they wake up at 3 a.m. Baby wants a bottle. Babies want warm bottles. You get warm tap water, which increases lead leaching, and for the first six months of life, which is exclusive breast feeding or bottle feeding, that baby is getting lead-laced formula.”

Hanna-Attisha says those are the kids who need the most aggressive intervention — the ones who were exposed to lead in their water as babies.

She says that means doctors need to follow their brain development closely, and they need access to good nutrition, preschool and early literacy programs.

Rebecca Williams is senior editor in the newsroom, where she edits stories and helps guide news coverage.
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