Residents of Flint, Michigan continue to have misgivings about their water supply, even after the city switched back to cleaner water in the wake of its recent contaminated water crisis. Yet one health issue – a growing number of skin rashes among residents – has caused them to avoid bathing with city-supplied water at all costs. But are these fears justified?
While most of these health problems were caused by ingesting the tainted water, residents also fear that simple skin contact could lead to other problems. As the CDC's Dr. Jevon McFadden told The New York Times, over 80 percent of Flint residents surveyed said they changed the way they have bathed due to the water crisis. But science tells us their fears of lead exposure -- from a quick shower or bathtub cleansing -- are unfounded.
As experts have pointed out, lead exposure is not likely to occur through the skin. The Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry notes, skin exposure "is not considered a significant pathway for the general population."
Also, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, exposure to lead through contaminated drinking water's absorption in the skin is not a health threat, because the water contains inorganic lead.
While organic lead -- which combined with carbon and hydrogen, and is used to make leaded gasoline -- may be absorbed through the skin, inorganic lead, the kind most often encountered, is not absorbed through the skin, especially in short durations of a shower or bath. This is an important distinction.
That said, in the wake of the devastating effects of lead poisoning through ingestion, most Flint residents refuse to take chances. Due to a rising number of reports of rashes, itchiness and hair loss, some Flint residents bathe at gyms outside the city, while others use bottled water. Still many others have no choice but to use Flint’s showers, going in quickly and with their mouths shut. But the direct connection between the rashes and the water supply has not been made.
State and federal officials continue to say that residents can only be affected if they ingest the lead-tainted water, while one advisor at the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services recently claimed there was no link between Flint water and the skin rashes.
“Flint residents are understandably worried about the effects of skin exposure to water in their homes, and it’s absolutely necessary we follow up directly on their concerns,” Dr. Eden Wells, chief medical executive with the MDHHS, said in a published statement. “While the science currently tells us children and adults can bathe in the water, we are committed to identifying any potential health risks so we can provide information to and protect families in Flint.”
Investigators are continuing to look into Flint's water supply to find any irritants which could cause these rashes, even though lead in the water seems an unlikely culprit.