Hurley doctors stop using 'poisoned' to refer to Flint children exposed to lead

Published: May. 23, 2018 at 11:31 PM EDT
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(05/23/2018) - Lead poisoned or lead exposed?

A war of words between city leaders and doctors at Hurley Medical Center who voted last week to discontinue use of the term "poisoned" when referring to the elevated lead levels in children during the water switch.

"The word 'poisoning' has to be used very very carefully," said Dr. Hernan Gomez. "It is incorrect, it shouldn't be used. It's destructive to the children of Flint."

Gomez, a toxicologist, pediatrician and emergency physician,

co-authored a study in the Journal Pediatrics on blood lead levels of children in Flint from 2006 to 2016.

He believes using the term "poisoned" is not only incorrect, but also stigmatizes Flint children.

"Lead poisoning equals permanent brain damage," he said. "Was there permanent brain damage? There is no evidence of that."

He said Flint children definitely were exposed to unhealthy levels of lead in their water, however.

"We are not minimizing or debating the fact that children were exposed to higher parts per billion of lead in water, this is absolutely correct," Gomez said.

But Gomez said his study shows that blood lead levels in children were actually higher when they began their study back in 2006 than during the height of the water crisis.

"We don't want the children of Flint to live with the stigma of a low IQ and negative behaviors, there is no lost generation," he said.

Mayor Karen Weaver said she will continue using the word poison because changing it minimizes the impact this has had on Flint children:

"We know that we have had kids that have been damaged by ingesting lead poisoned water, for a year and a half before anyone spoke out on our behalf," she said.

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, who first revealed children were exposed to lead in the Flint water supply, joined the argument on her Facebook page.

"There is no debate. There is no safe level of lead and this resolution only adds confusion to the scientific consensus of a nationwide public health threat," she wrote.

Dr. Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech University, who has conducted extensive research on the Flint water crisis, said both sides of the argument technically are correct.

"No one is making false statements," Edwards said. "I feel some children were poisoned, but when referring to the average child, and the typical exposure that occurred, it is irresponsible to refer to that case as lead poisoned or permanently brain damaged."

Edwards said that calling those kids 'lead exposed' is much more appropriate.