Quoth Dave Mastio on the Flint water crisis: Don’t worry, be happy. Things were worse in the past

It’s been nearly three weeks since I wrote about how an imperative to save money at all costs combined with gross incompetence to poison Flint’s children with lead. In (very) brief, the city of Flint decided to switch from buying water from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) to a new water source. Unfortunately, the pipeline from that water authority, which was going to draw water from Lake Huron, wasn’t scheduled to be completed until 2016. When DWSD learned that Flint was going to switch water sources, it gave a year’s notice that it was going to void its long term contract with Flint but expressed willingness to negotiate a short term contract to supply Flint until the new pipe was ready. As a result, in 2014 the emergency manager (an official that Michigan state law allows the government to appoint when a “financial emergency” is declared in a local government) decided to temporarily switch over to Flint River water as a supply. Unfortunately, Flint River water is much more corrosive than Lake Huron water (which is what DWSD supplies) and the Flint water department didn’t treat it to prevent it from corroding old pipes.

As a result, the water leached lead from the pipes and pipe joints, leading to high levels of lead in many Flint homes and an doubling of the number of children with elevated blood lead levels. If you want details, check out my prior post and a recent post by a well-known friend of the blog. I won’t get into the political weeds again, except to mention that I do think the emergency manager law had a lot to do with the failure of the state to act sooner. Although local governments can and do screw up and there’s no guarantee that an elected city council wouldn’t have made the same initial decision, I bet that an elected city council would have felt a lot more pressure a lot earlier to do something when citizens started complaining about the brown water and the rashes it caused. The emergency manager and Governor Rick Snyder weren’t elected by the people of Flint, who were not the sort of people who would have voted for Snyder anyway.

In any case, I provide this background as a prelude to discussing what has to be the absolute dumbest post I’ve yet seen about the Flint water crisis. Oe thing that’s happened since the revelations of high lead levels in Flint water and the blood of too many Flint children, a predictable chorus of defense and denial has cropped up that has been trying to blame the crisis on the local government rather than the state or, in at least one case, deny that there even is a problem. Some have even tried to call the whole thing a hoax.

Enter David Mastio of USA TODAY, who wrote a truly brain dead op-ed on the Flint water crisis entitled Flint lead crisis getting a tad overdone. Get a load of this:

Now that the leaching of poisonous lead into the tap water of Flint, Mich., has been declared a national emergency, it might be time to dial back the panic just a notch (or two).

Flint’s 8,000 children have not had their lives destroyed. Jesse Jackson can roll up his crime tape. Michael Moore can go back to promoting his latest film. Taken as a whole, in fact, Flint’s kids are better off than the previous generations of Michigander kids in at least one important way. Even after Flint’s disaster, the city’s children have far less lead in their blood than their parents or grandparents did at the same age.

Yes, we don’t yet know how many children might have suffered permanent damage from exposure to high levels of lead, but that doesn’t mean that hundreds or thousands weren’t. It’s also a patently disingenuous argument, which Mastio continues:

In 2005, Michigan completed the years-long process of collecting 500,000 lead blood tests from children in the state under 6. Back then, 26% of kids tested — that’s more than one in four — had blood lead levels (5 micrograms per deciliter or greater) that would cause concern today. In the hardest hit parts of Flint now, only 10.6% of kids have such concerning levels of lead in their blood.

How can that be? While drinking water management in Flint has obviously been a mess in recent years, it’s a mess that comes amid one of the greatest public health and environmental triumphs in U.S. history.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data are clear. In the late 1970s, 88% of Americans ages 1 to 5 had at least 10 micrograms per deciliter of lead in their blood, or twice as much as today’s level of concern.

By the early 1990s, only 4.4% of children were exposed to so much lead. And year by year since then, according to more than 31 million blood tests compiled by the CDC just since 2005, lead has been steadily disappearing from American kids’ blood.

Basically, Mastio is arguing that because things were worse in the past, it’s not so bad that lead levels spiked after Flint was switched to Flint River water and that the number of children with elevated lead levels doubled. They tightened the standards! It used to be way worse than it is now! So there’s nothing much to worry about. Mastio knows that there has never been a safe blood level of lead established, such that public health officials believe there is no safe level, but, hey, cut the government a break. As Mastio says, we spent decades spewing lead into the air and coating our houses with it before we banned leaded gasoline and lead paint. Yes, and that was one of the most disastrous things we’ve ever done from an environmental and public health standpoint. For 60 years, we did spew lead into the air through auto emissions, and it caused real health problems. Yes, it’s true that, because leaded gasoline was finally banned in the 1980s, we are exposed to much less lead than we used to be, and that’s a good thing. That doesn’t mean that something that backtracks on that for a whole city is not that big a deal. It is.

Yet Mastio still tries to downplay the problem. First, he mentions that the percentage of children with elevated blood lead levels declined in three of Flint’s wards, as if that makes up for the tripling of the percentage of children with elevated lead levels in the other high risk wards and the lead contamination of Flint’s water is not that big a deal. (Excuse me, Mastio’s “putting the Flint water crisis into context,” that context being the implication that it’s not that big a deal.) I’ll give Mastio credit, though. He sure does know how to cherry pick. He zeroed in on one table in Hanna-Attisha’s paper like a laser.

Mastio’s next argument seeks to imply that Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha’s study overestimated how many children had elevated blood levels because some of the samples she examined used came from capillary blood instead of venous blood, which can overestimate the true serum lead level:

One reason for such widely divergent results in Flint, where the percentage of children with elevated blood lead levels tripled in one place while nearby the percentage of kids affected fell, may be that some of the test results stem from an inaccurate screening test far less reliable than the procedure recommended by the CDC as the gold standard.

According to officials in the CDC’s lead program, “capillary” test errors overestimate the amount of lead in a child’s blood. Test results that show blood lead levels of 5 to 9 micrograms per deciliter, the lowest level of lead exposure now tracked by health officials, require only a single prick test. According to the CDC, the average error is 1 microgram per deciliter, a 10% to 20% overestimate in lead levels between 5 and 9. And federal rules allow laboratories to overestimate blood lead levels by as much as 4 micrograms per deciliter and still meet accuracy standards.

Does Mastio know something I don’t? I read Hanna-Attisha’s paper. Nowhere does it say that her team was examining capillary blood lead levels. I also know a little something about how blood lead levels are checked because my wife is a pediatric advanced practice nurse. Where she works, they’re all venous blood levels, not capillary blood levels. Moreover, in places where capillary blood levels are measured, they are generally confirmed with a venous blood level. Moreover, a study that Mastio himself cites showing 20% of children with elevated blood lead levels in Michigan points out that, of 2002 to 2005 10,000 cases of elevated blood levels, only 1,000 of those had not been confirmed with a venous test. My guess is that the number is even lower now. Would 10% of the samples make a difference? Looking at the data in Dr. Hanna-Attisha’s paper, I deem it doubtful.

This leads to the jaw-droppingly stupid conclusion:

But it also true that the health threat in Flint is being exaggerated. While plenty of questions remain about who is most at fault and who is most at risk, one thing is for sure: Flint residents of only a decade ago would have counted themselves lucky to suffer the lead “poisoning” rates plaguing the city today.

This is such a blatant attempt at denying the problem while maintaining plausible deniability by acknowledging that lead is not good that it’s hard to know if it’s motivated by ideology or cluelessness. It’s also not as though Michigan doesn’t publicly publish data about blood lead levels in children. For instance, take a look at the 2013 report. Yes, there has been a gratifying decline in the number of children with elevated blood lead levels. That doesn’t mean that Flint residents of a decade ago would have counted themselves lucky only to have the lead poisoning rates of today, particularly given that we don’t yet know how high these percentages will go. Remember, Flint only switched back to Detroit water in October, and, thanks to the corroded pipes, lead levels are still elevated. Let’s put it this way, even if Flint residents from 10 years ago would be happy with today’s lead levels, today’s Flint residents are not at all happy about reversing the decades of progress that drove the numbers of children with elevated lead levels down so quickly. Nor should they be. That’s the real context. It’s all the context that’s needed.

Basically, Mastio’s argument seems to boil down to this: You shouldn’t “panic” because what are now considered to be maximal recommended lead concentrations have been exceeded and the percentage of children with elevated blood levels has increased alarmingly. Hey, things were worse as recently as a decade ago! While you’re at it, don’t worry about asbestos in the workplace. You’re still exposed to way less than you would have been 50 or 60 years ago. Living next to a Superfund site? Don’t worry, be happy. Things were much worse in the 1970s. As has been pointed out, it’s easy to accuse the people of Flint of “hysteria” if you’re not the one living there and your children aren’t drinking the lead-laden water. Mastio might be more convincing if he had some skin in the game, but he doesn’t. So he fails to see just how weak and unconvincing his arguments are, because he and his family are not at risk.