The City of Flint was already distressed because of decades of financial decline when an estimated 140 000 individuals were exposed to lead and other contaminants in drinking water. In April 2014, Flint's drinking water source was changed from Great Lakes' Lake Huron (which was provided by the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department) to the Flint River without necessary corrosion control treatment to prevent lead release from pipes and plumbing. Lead exposure can damage children's brains and nervous systems, lead to slow growth and development, and result in learning, behavior, hearing, and speech problems. After the involvement of concerned residents and independent researchers, Flint was reconnected to the Detroit water system on October 16, 2015. A federal emergency was declared in January 2016.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provided assistance and support for response and recovery efforts including coordinating effective health messaging; assessing lead exposure; providing guidance on blood lead screening protocols; and identifying and linking community members to appropriate follow-up services.
In response to the crisis in Flint, Congress funded the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to establish a federal advisory committee; enhance Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program activities; and support a voluntary Flint lead exposure registry. The registry, funded through a grant to Michigan State University, is designed to identify eligible participants and ensure robust registry data; monitor health, child development, service utilization, and ongoing lead exposure; improve service delivery to lead-exposed individuals; and coordinate with other community and federally funded programs in Flint. The registry is also collaborating to make Flint “lead-free” and to share best practices with other communities.
The Flint water crisis highlights the need for improved risk communication strategies, and environmental health infrastructure, enhanced surveillance, and primary prevention to identify and respond to environmental threats to the public's health. Collecting data is important to facilitate action and decision making to prevent lead poisoning. Partnerships can help guide innovative strategies for primary lead prevention, raise awareness, extend outreach and communication efforts, and promote a shared sense of ownership.