The Flint Lead Crisis May Be the Tip of the Iceberg

Back in the 1960s, a Pulitzer prize-winning scientist described the problem of childhood lead poisoning as “so well defined, so neatly packaged with both causes and cures known, that if we don’t eliminate this social crime, our society deserves all the disasters that have been forecast for it.”

As I discuss in my video Lead in Drinking Water, “We have the knowledge required to redress this social crime. We know where the lead is, how people are exposed, and how it damages health. What we lack is the political will to do what should be done.” Unfortunately, “many policy makers consider the costs of action primarily in economic and financial terms and ignore the costs of inaction on human health and communities’ livelihoods.”

“At this point, most Americans have heard of the avoidable and abject failure of government on the local, state and federal level; environmental authorities; and water company officials”—in fact, failure across the board—“to prevent the mass poisoning of hundreds of children and adults in Flint, Michigan.”

“A government plan to save some money had led public officials to switch the city’s water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River, once the sewer for the auto industry.” Flint citizens “complained that their tap water was foul and discolored. But city, state, and federal officials took no heed.”

Why? Could it have anything to do with the fact that those who complained are “among the poorest in America, mostly African American”?

Officials failed to act for eighteen months, “until a local pediatrician revealed dramatically elevated lead levels in children’s blood.” An investigation didn’t just find fault but highlighted seeming falsification of water-quality results to keep people in the dark.

Though “the specific breed of alleged government corruption” may be unique to Flint, “the end result might not be so rare in the USA—home to an ageing water system.” As the president of the Children’s Health Fund said, “The Pandora’s box is now wide open.” Flint may be only “the tip of an enormous iceberg”—potentially “just one of a great many icebergs.”

“In addition to lead-based paint and residual lead in soil”—found everywhere from leaded gasoline—“a significant source of childhood lead exposure occurs through drinking water as a result of leaching from lead pipes, lead solder, or brass fixtures.” This has been recognized to be a health issue in the United States as early as 1845, a year our flag only had 26 stars. Yet, the use of lead in water pipes and solder was not restricted until the Safe Drinking Water Act Amendment, 141 years later. Was the city you’re living in built before 1986 when the amendment was passed? Today, the “exact number of lead water pipes currently in use is not clear” as about one in three cities surveyed shrugged their shoulders, “not being able to state how much lead piping exists.”

There are anti-corrosion chemicals you can add to tap water to try to keep the lead in the pipes. Flint could have done that, but it could have cost about $100 a day. Today, “the cost of repairing the Flint water system is estimated at $1.5 billion…”

Let me close with a quote from the heroic pediatrician who blew the whistle, Dr. Hanna-Attisha. She was asked, “What advice would you have for other physicians taking on a whistle-blower role?” She replied, “This is our job. This is why we went to medical school—to help people.”

Wasn’t there lead in paint, too, for the longest time? Yes, and that’s the subject of my video How the Lead Paint Industry Got Away with It. And what about leaded gasoline? How many of you remember going to the pumps and seeing the choice between leaded and unleaded? That’s the subject of How the Leaded Gas Industry Got Away with It.


I also get into what the effects are and what we can do about it. Check out:

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live presentations:

How the Lead Paint and Gas Industries Got Away with It

We have known for thousands of years that lead can be toxic and for more than a century that children could be poisoned by lead paint. Since those first cases, the “lead industry has mobilized against the advances of science,” as I discuss in my video How the Lead Paint Industry Got Away with It.

By 1926, lead poisoning was already “of relatively frequent occurrence in children,” yet “the United States continued to allow the use of lead-based paint until 1978.” In contrast, in Europe, many countries said, Hmm, poisoning children? No, thanks. and “banned the use of lead-based paint as early as 1909.” 

“The delay in banning lead-based paint in the United States was due largely to the marketing and lobbying efforts of the lead industry,” profiting from the poison. It knew it couldn’t hold off forever, but the industry boasted that its “victories have been in the deferral of implementation of…regulations.”

And now, “peeling paint turns into poisonous dust,” and guess where it ends up? As a Mount Sinai dean and a Harvard neurology professor put it: “Lead is a devastating poison. It damages children’s brains, erodes intelligence, diminishes creativity…” and judgment and language. Yet, despite the accumulating evidence, the lead industry didn’t just fail to warn people—“it engaged in an energetic promotion of lead paint.” After all, a can of pure white lead paint had huge amounts of lead, which meant huge profits for the industry.

But, as you can see in an old advertisement featured at 1:55 in my video, “[t]here is no cause for worry” if your toddler rubs up against lead paint, because those “fingerprint smudges or dirt spots” can be removed “easily without harming the paint.” Wouldn’t want to harm the paint. After all, “painted walls are sanitary…”

The director of the Lead Industry Association blamed the victims: “Childhood lead poisoning is essentially a problem of slum dwellings and relatively ignorant parents.”

“It seems that no amount of evidence, no health statistics, no public outrage could get industry to care that their lead paint was killing and poisoning children,” but how much public outrage was there really?

“It goes without saying that lead is a devastating, debilitating poison” and that “literally millions of children have been diagnosed with varying degrees of elevated blood lead levels…” Compare that to polio, for example. “In the 1950s, for example, fewer than sixty thousand new cases of polio per year created a near-panic among American parents and a national mobilization that led to vaccination campaigns that virtually wiped out the disease within a decade.” In contrast, despite “many millions of children [who have] had their lives altered for the worse by exposure to lead…[a]t no point in the past hundred years has there been a similar national mobilization over lead.” Today, after literally a century, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates over five hundred thousand children still suffer from “elevated blood-lead levels.”

The good news is that blood lead levels are in decline, which is celebrated as one of our great public health achievements. But, given what we knew, and for how long we knew, “it is presumptuous to declare the decline in childhood lead poisoning a public health victory.” Indeed, “even if we were victorious…it would be a victory diminished by our failure to learn from the epidemic and take steps to dramatically reduce exposures to other confirmed and suspected environmental toxicants as well as chemicals of uncertain toxicity.”

That’s one of the reasons I wanted to do this series on lead. We need to learn from our history so the next time some industry wants to sell something to our kids, we’ll stick to the science. And, of course, lead levels aren’t declining for everyone.

As the whistle-blowing pediatrician who helped expose the Flint drinking water crisis explained, “The people in Flint have a 20-year lower life expectancy than people in a neighboring suburb. We were already struggling with every barrier to our children’s success. Then we gave them lead.”

Her research showed that the switch in water supplies from the Great Lakes to the polluted Flint River “created a perfect storm” for lead contamination, doubling the percentage of kids with elevated lead levels in their blood, as you can see at 0:42 in my video How the Leaded Gas Industry Got Away with It, whereas out in the suburbs, where the water supply remained unchanged, children’s lead levels stayed about the same. That’s how she knew it was the switch in water supplies. That’s what broke the story of the Flint crisis: a doubling of elevated lead levels.

But wait a moment: Even before the switch from Lake Huron to the polluted Flint River, when everyone was getting the same water, lead levels in children in Flint were twice that of the suburbs. There was already a doubling in elevated lead levels in Flint and other poor communities around the country, but where have all the crisis headlines been? Indeed, even with all the bottled water in the world, the children in Flint will continue to live in a lead-polluted environment.

Many have pointed out the irony that the new water from the Flint River was “so corrosive” that the nearby General Motors plant switched back to a clean water source when it started noticing rust spots on its new parts, all while water quality complaints from Flint residents were being ignored. But, there is an additional irony: General Motors is a major reason why the world is so contaminated with lead in the first place, as GM invented leaded gasoline. “Shortly after manufacture began, workers…began to become floridly psychotic and die.”

“In the wake of blaring headlines” about the lead-poisoned workers, public health leaders “warned of the potential for damage to broad swaths of the population” posed by putting this “well established toxin” into gasoline, “into the daily lives of millions of people. Yet, despite these warnings, millions…were harmed…and this entirely preventable poisoning still occurs today.”

“Virtually all the lead in the environment is there as a result of human activity.” Because we put it there. It used to be locked away, deep underground or under the ocean, but that was before we drove it around the Earth. “In the early 1970s, 200,000 tons of lead was emitted from automobiles in the United States each year, mostly in urban areas.” Had lead not been added to gasoline, the industry would have had to use higher-octane gas, which is less profitable. So, the “oil and lead industries…successfully thwarted government efforts to limit lead in gasoline for 50 years.” But, how were they able to do that? “Early public health warnings were not heeded because the industry assured the scientific community and the public that there was no danger.” I could see how a gullible public might be swayed by slick PR, but how do you manipulate the scientific community? By manipulating the science.

“The lead industry was able to achieve its influence in large part by being the primary supporter of research on health effects of lead,” and it got the best science money could buy. “Long before Big Tobacco, the lead industry understood the inestimable value of purchasing ‘good science.’”

“Consequently, the vast majority of relevant studies of lead in gasoline published [for decades]…were favorable to the lead industries.” What’s more, they “even sent a delegation to try to convince the U.S. EPA administrator that the lead regulation was not necessary because they alleged lead was an essential mineral required for optimum growth and development.”

Of course, the exact opposite is true. Lead is toxic to development. There are, however, nutritional interventions that can help alleviate lead toxicity. For example, there are food components that can help decrease the absorption of lead and help flush it out of your body. I’ve produced a series of three videos on specific dietary interventions, such as particular foods to eat, but—spoiler alert—in general, “food patterns that reduce susceptibility to lead toxicity are consistent with the recommendations for a healthy diet.”

As soon as I learned about the unfolding crisis in Flint, Michigan, I knew I had to take a deep dive into the medical literature to see if there is anything these kids might be able to do diet-wise to reduce their body burden.

Most of the time when I cover a subject on NutritionFacts.org, I’ve addressed it previously, so I just have to research the new studies published in the interim. But I had never really looked deeply into lead poisoning before, so I was faced with more than a century of science to dig through. Yes, I did discover there were foods that could help, but I also learned about cautionary tales like this one about our shameful history with leaded paint. By learning this lesson, hopefully, we can put more critical thought into preventing future disasters that can arise when our society allows profits to be placed over people.


This is part of a series on lead. You can view the rest of the series here:

 You may also be interested in How to Lower Heavy Metal Levels with Diet.

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What relevance does this have for us today? See, for example, my video How Smoking in 1959 Is Like Eating in 2019.

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live presentations:

What Happens if You Have Red Wine or Avocados with a Meal?

Whole plant sources of sugar and fat can ameliorate some of the postprandial (after meal) inflammation caused by the consumption of refined carbohydrates and meat.

Studies have shown how adding even steamed skinless chicken breast can exacerbate the insulin spike from white rice, but fish may be worse. At 0:18 in my video The Effects of Avocados and Red Wine on Meal-Induced Inflammation, you can see how the insulin scores of a low-carbohydrate plant food, peanuts, is lower compared to common low-carb animal foods—eggs, cheese, and beef. Fish was even worse, with an insulin score closer to doughnut territory.

At 0:36 in my video, you can see the insulin spike when people are fed mashed white potatoes. What do you think happens when they’re also given tuna fish? Twice the insulin spike. The same is seen with white flour spaghetti versus white flour spaghetti with meat. The addition of animal protein may make the pancreas work twice as hard.

You can do it with straight sugar water, too. If you perform a glucose challenge to test for diabetes, drinking a certain amount of sugar, at 1:10 in my video, you can see the kind of spike in insulin you get. But, if you take in the exact same amount of sugar but with some meat added, you get a higher spike. And, as you can see at 1:25 in my video, the more meat you add, the worse it gets. Just adding a little meat to carbs doesn’t seem to do much, but once you get up to around a third of a chicken’s breast worth, you can elicit a significantly increased surge of insulin.

So, a chicken sandwich may aggravate the metabolic harm of the refined carb white bread it’s on, but what about a PB&J? At 1:49 in my video, you can see that adding nuts to Wonder Bread actually calms the insulin and blood sugar response. What if, instead of nuts, you smeared on an all fruit strawberry jam? Berries, which have even more antioxidants than nuts, can squelch the oxidation of cholesterol in response to a typical American breakfast and even reduce the amount of fat in your blood after the meal. And, with less oxidation, there is less inflammation when berries are added to a meal.

So, a whole plant food source of sugar can decrease inflammation in response to an “inflammatory stressor” meal, but what about a whole plant food source of fat? As you can see at 2:38 in my video, within hours of eating a burger topped with half an avocado, the level of an inflammatory biomarker goes up in your blood, but not as high as eating the burger without the avocado. This may be because all whole plant foods contain antioxidants, which decrease inflammation, and also contain fiber, which is one reason even high fat whole plant foods like nuts can lower cholesterol. And, the same could be said for avocados. At 3:12 in my video, you can see avocado causing a significant drop in cholesterol levels, especially in those with high cholesterol, with even a drop in triglycerides.

If eating berries with a meal decreases inflammation, what about drinking berries? Sipping wine with your white bread significantly blunts the blood sugar spike from the bread, but the alcohol increases the fat in the blood by about the same amount. As you can see at 3:40 in my video, you’ll get a triglycerides bump when you eat some cheese and crackers, but if you sip some wine with the same snack, triglycerides shoot through the roof. How do we know it was the alcohol? Because if you use dealcoholized red wine, the same wine but with the alcohol removed, you don’t get the same reaction. This has been shown in about a half dozen other studies, along with an increase in inflammatory markers. So, the dealcoholized red wine helps in some ways but not others.

A similar paradoxical effect was found with exercise. If people cycle at high intensity for about an hour a half-day before drinking a milkshake, the triglycerides response is less than without the prior exercise, yet the inflammatory response to the meal appeared worse, as you can see at 4:18 in my video. The bottom line is not to avoid exercise but to avoid milkshakes.

The healthiest approach is a whole food, plant-based diet, but there are “promising pharmacologic approaches to the normalization” of high blood sugars and fat by taking medications. “However, resorting to drug therapy for an epidemic caused by a maladaptive diet is less rational than simply realigning our eating habits with our physiological needs.”

Protein from meat can cause more of an insulin spike than pure table sugar. See the comparisons in my video Paleo Diets May Negate Benefits of Exercise.

Interested in more information on the almond butter study I mentioned? I discuss it further in How to Prevent Blood Sugar and Triglyceride Spikes After Meals.

Berries have their own sugar, so how can eating berries lower the blood sugar spike after a meal? Find out in If Fructose Is Bad, What About Fruit?


For more on avocados, check out:

And here are more videos on red wine:

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live presentations: