(Editor’s Note: The following is a statement issued by the Genesee County Medical Society, June 4)
The Genesee County Medical Society has reviewed the position taken by the Medical Staff of the Hurley Medical Center regarding the term “lead poisoned.” It’s very important to recognize there are no strict guidelines that would allow us to state that using the term “exposed” is different than using the term “poisoned” in regard to physiologic disruption caused by the toxic metal lead. It is vital to emphasize that there is no safe amount of lead when ingested by children, pregnant women, or any person daily for 15 months without any risk to health and/or development.

While there are still some who must see organ failure, seizures or altered consciousness to use the word poisoned, many medical and scientific experts along with the federal Centers for Disease Control have recognized the more subtle effects of lead poisoning and have repeatedly lowered the level of concern from 40 to 5 ug/ml starting in the 1970s. This has happened in part because the methods to measure blood levels have improved as well as the tools to evaluate brain function. Additionally, screening with blood lead levels does not measure the lead storage in other organs such as the brain, heart, kidneys, teeth, and bones. Perhaps more importantly, we have come to recognize that something being common does not make it acceptable.

Because the literature repeatedly states that there is no safe level of lead, we do not feel comfortable declaring a population safe unless all of its members are free of preventable exposure to this known neurotoxin. It is even more egregious that this neurotoxin is present in their tap water.

Our patients should not be exposed to any toxins when that exposure is preventable. As a clarifying analogy, we note that if a manufacturer knowingly produced a product containing lead for human consumption, they would be stopped from doing so. So too, for our government.

The use of averages, as has been cited in the Medical Staff position, does not take into consideration variations in exposure and susceptibility. It also does not consider the cumulative impact from other environmental insults and other longstanding health disparities. Finally, as an environmental justice issue, there is no acceptable reason why any one group of Michigan residents should tolerate a higher level of lead exposure and ingestion than others just because they live in a certain city or service area.

The statement issued from the most recent HMC Medical Staff meeting does not represent the opinion of the Genesee County Medical Society.

We stand by our position regarding water consumption in the City of Flint, a position also held by the Genesee County Health Department and the City of Flint.

Our communications have never used the term “lead poisoned.” We believe that physicians, and other health professionals who require the elimination of the term “lead poisoned” when referring to lead exposure resulting from the water crisis may in fact be doing harm. Despite the well-meaning intention of removing the possible stigma due to exposure and ingestion of tainted water, their statement may in fact increase stress levels, anger and distrust among the exposed populations. They may be perceived as denying or dismissing traumatic lived experience. We fear this may seriously damage the doctor-patient relationship, and the community’s trust in the medical community in general.

We are encouraged by some of the measures which have been taken to counteract the impact of lead such as avoidance, early childhood programs and the provision of nutritious foods. We believe that the resilience and strength of the people of Flint, in addition to a significant upgrade of the water infrastructure and other future needed measures will serve to help to reverse the effects of this toxic ingestion of lead and other contaminants in our water. Further, we hope that the problems and potential solutions will help to inform other communities that face similar contamination of a basic human need: Clean Drinking Water.

We look forward to future efforts to work with the people of Flint and physicians of Hurley Medical Center to improve communication to the public that best clarifies their risk in the wake of this environmental health crisis.

For questions or comments, you may contact Peter Levine at plevine@gcms.org.