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The Democratic debate in Flint, Mich., opened with a discussion of the city’s lead poisoning crisis, and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Flint isn’t the only place where serious action is needed.
"We have a lot of communities right now in our country where the level of toxins in the water, including lead, are way above what anybody should tolerate," Clinton said. "We have a higher rate of tested lead in people in Cleveland than in Flint. So I’m not satisfied with just doing everything we must do for Flint. I want to tackle this problem across the board."
We were curious about Clinton’s claim that Cleveland has it worse.
If you stopped listening there, you might have thought she was saying the tap water in Ohio’s second-largest city is also contaminated with lead — which is not the case.
Later in the debate, Clinton made a point of mentioning lead coming from other sources, too: "I want us to have an absolute commitment to getting rid of lead wherever it is because it's not only in water systems, it's also in soil, and it's in lead paint that is found mostly in older homes," she said.
The Clinton campaign cited an article in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and we found other reports and data that back her point.
Lead poisoning leads to serious neurological and behavioral effects ranging from shortened attention spans and developmental disabilities to coma and even death.
While no level of lead is safe in children, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention uses a reference level of 5 micrograms of lead per one deciliter of blood as an indicator of higher-than-usual blood lead levels. According to the CDC, 2.5 percent of American children age 5 and under — about a half million kids — test at this level.
Residents of Flint have been consuming tap water with lead since 2014, when the city switched its water source to the polluted Flint River to save money. In 2015, 4 percent of all kids and 6.3 percent of kids in high-risk areas had elevated blood lead levels, according to an analysis by Monica Hanna-Attisha, a researcher at Flint’s Hurley Children’s Hospital.
Clinton has a point that many other American cities are dealing with the toxin. Lead-contaminated tap water has run through faucets in Washington D.C., Durham, N.C., Lakehurst Acres, Maine, Jackson, Miss. and other places throughout the years.
But in most places, lead poisoning elsewhere is mainly due to lead-based paint in older houses.
That’s the case for Cleveland, where a whopping 14.2 percent of kids tested at the reference level in 2014, according to the Cuyahoga County Board of Health. In the county, 10.3 percent of kids had elevated blood levels.
Cleveland and Cuyahoga County aren’t exactly outliers. Looking at 2014 CDC surveillance data for 1,425 counties in 29 states, 288 counties have higher rates of lead poisoning than Flint. (We should caution that the data is far from perfect; for example, 100 percent of kids in Colfax County, N.M., tested positive, but the sample size was just 33 kids.)
What’s more, 15 counties had the same percentage or higher rates of poisoned children as Flint, but at double the reference blood-lead level:
Clinton said, "We have a higher rate of tested lead in people in Cleveland than in Flint."
In Flint, 4 percent of all kids and 6.3 percent of kids in high-risk areas in Flint tested positive for lead poisoning in 2015. In Cleveland, that rate was 14.2 percent in 2014.
However, the lead in Cleveland came from paint, not water, and Clinton's initial phrasing made that unclear. With this caveat, we rate Clinton's claim Mostly True.
CNN,Democratic Presidential Debate in Flint, Michigan, March 6, 2016
Email interview with Josh Schwerin, spokesman for Hillary Clinton, March 7, 2016
Cleveland Plain Dealer, "It's not about the water, but Cleveland has a higher rate of lead poisoning than Flint, Michigan," Feb. 4, 2016
World Health Organization, "Lead poisoning and health," Aug. 2015
CDC, "What Do Parents Need to Know to Protect Their Children?" June 9, 2014
CDC, "Lead Prevention Tips," June 9, 2014
CDC, CDC’s National Surveillance Data (1997-2014), accessed March 7, 2016
New York Times, "Unsafe Lead Levels in Tap Water Not Limited to Flint," Feb. 8, 2016
Environmental Health Perspectives, "Out of Plumb: When Water Treatment Causes Lead Contamination," 2009
The Clarion Ledger, "Lead, water: Still questions in Jackson," Feb. 3, 2016
Cuyahoga County Board of Health, "City of Cleveland NeighborhoodsConfirmed Elevated Blood Lead Levels (EBLs) for Children < 6 years of age January 1, 2014 - December 31, 2014," accessed March 7, 2016
New York Times, "Flint Is in the News, but Lead Poisoning Is Even Worse in Cleveland," March 3, 2016
Detroit Free Press, "State data confirms higher blood-lead levels in Flint kids," Sept. 29, 2015
Mona Hanna-Attisha, "Pediatric lead exposure in Flint, Michigan: A Failure of Primary Prevention," Sept. 26, 2015
Mother Jones, "Raw Data: Lead Poisoning of Kids in Flint," Jan. 25, 2016
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