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Study: “Hyperbolic messaging” tied to Flint water crisis may be negatively affecting the city's children

Dr. Marc Edwards, professor Virginia Tech University (file photo)
Steve Carmody
Michigan Radio
Dr. Marc Edwards, professor Virginia Tech University (file photo)

A researcher who helped reveal the Flint water crisis now says the negative effects on Flint children may have been overstated.

In 2015, Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards’ testing revealed high lead levels in Flint’s drinking water. The testing results proved pivotal in the citizens’ campaign to switch Flint’s tap water source back to Detroit’s water system.

Next month will mark the ninth anniversary of Flint’s ill-fated switch to the Flint River as its drinking water source. The water was not properly treated. Lead leeched from aging water pipes contaminating the drinking water.

The lead contamination raised concerns about the cognitive development of young children. Children under seven years old are particularly at risk.

Millions of dollars have been spent to expand special education programs for Flint children. The percentage of Flint children enrolled in special education has risen significantly in the past nine years.

Edwards credits educators, parents and medical professionals for pursuing needed treatments for Flint children experiencing cognitive and other health issues related to drinking water tainted with lead.

But in a new study, Virginia Tech’s Marc Edwards also suggests the increase in Flint children entering special education programs since the crisis may be partially driven by the media and parents telling healthy children they’re learning impaired because of their lead exposure.

“It’s possible and even likely that this false story created more damage than the actual water lead exposure,” said Edwards.

Edwards says it’s an example of the nocebo effect, which is a mirror reflection of the better-known placebo effect. In the placebo effect, a person who receives a drug or treatment that has no real medical value will respond positively if they are told the treatment will work.

With the nocebo effect, the result is just the opposite. Edwards suggests Flint children have heard “hyperbolic messaging” from the news media, celebrities, even their own parents that they are damaged and incapable of learning. He contends that messaging has negatively affected some Flint children.

Flint water activist Melissa Mays rejects Edwards’ position. For one thing, she questions the blood lead data that Edwards uses in his study.

Mays also insists Flint children are doing as well as they are because they have had access to support services.

“The Flint kids are incredible,” said Mays, “And the reason they are doing as well as they are is because we were able to get them the support services they need and deserve after being poisoned.”

Edwards’ study appears in the journal Clinical Psychology in Europe. Edwards also co-authored an Op-ed in the digital magazine Undark.

Steve Carmody has been a reporter for Michigan Public since 2005. Steve previously worked at public radio and television stations in Florida, Oklahoma and Kentucky, and also has extensive experience in commercial broadcasting.