Sunday, January 24, 2016

Flint, lead, medical heroes, O-rings and guns

In January, 1986, 73 seconds after lift-off, the space shuttle Challenger exploded, killing all 7 astronauts on board, including one of the first civilians to go up, New Hampshire teacher Christa McAuliffe. It was a disaster; indeed the words are now paired so that we always say “Challenger disaster”. The cause was a flaw in the design of the solid rocket boosters (“SRB”s) and in the now famous “O-rings”, flexible rubber seals, like max versions of the ones we see on a lot of home tools. It was perhaps the worst domestic disaster of its time, nine years before the 1995 domestic-terrorist white-power bombing in Oklahoma City, almost 16 years before the attack on 9/11. It was a disaster in two ways; the obvious one, the explosion, and in that it could have been prevented; NASA and the company that produced the SRBs, Morton Thiokol, knew about the problem.

Morton Thiokol engineers, and particularly one named Roger Boisjoly, had been worried about the problem for years; Boisjoly had expressed his particular concerns in 1985. Morton Thiokol managers considered telling NASA to scrap the launch, and then decided not to. After the disaster, Boisjoly testified before a commission about the problem, and about the warnings that he had sent to his bosses. In 1988 he was awarded the Award for Scientific Freedom and Responsibility by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He was shunned and at Morton Thiokol, and resigned. He was right; Morton Thiokol and NASA were wrong, and it led to a disaster. And he was out of a job.

In 2014, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder appointed an emergency manager named Darnell Earley, for the bankrupt city of Flint. One of his cost-cutting measures was to stop buying treated Lake Huron water from the Detroit system and instead supply water from the Flint River. The river was full of corrosives, from decades of industrial discharge, and one effect was to degrade the old lead pipes in many Flint homes, dramatically increasing the lead levels in the water. And in the bodies of Flint’s children. The politics of the decision are continuing to play out, with calls for Snyder’s resignation, and it would have been corrupt and evil even if the problem had been identified and remedied earlier. It wasn’t, and thus became a disaster. Good piece on it in Rolling Stone.

Again, we have a hero, a Flint pediatrician named Mona Hanna-Attisha. Dr. Hanna-Attisha had heard that a team from Virginia Tech had found high lead levels in Flint’s water, and noted that she was seeing a rise in the number of children with high lead levels. She led a team doing “the easiest research project I have ever done”; because Medicaid requires children to be tested for lead at 1 and 2 years of age, she was able to compare the prevalence of high levels from 2013 to 2015.  The percentage of children with elevated lead levels “doubled in the whole city, and in some neighborhoods, it tripled. And it directly correlated with where the water lead levels were the highest” she noted in an interview on “Democracy Now”. She announced it at a press conference, and was immediately attacked by the powers-that-be (I call them the “PTB”); in this case both the political leaders of the state and the state health department.

Well, that evening, we were attacked. So I was called an "unfortunate researcher," that I was causing near hysteria, that I was splicing and dicing numbers, and that the state data was not consistent with my data. And as a scientist, as a researcher, as a professional, you double-check and you triple-check, and the numbers didn’t lie. And we knew that. But when the state, with a team of like 50 epidemiologists, tells you you’re wrong, you second-guess yourself. But that lasted just a short period, and we regrouped and told them why, "No, you were wrong." And after about a week and a half or two weeks, after some good conversations, they relooked at their numbers and finally said that the state’s findings were consistent with my findings.

There is a long and distinguished tradition of doctors making breakthrough discoveries that helped cure or prevent disease in thousands or millions of people. Some of the most storied are Edward Jenner, the 18th century physician who invented the vaccine to prevent smallpox, 19th century physicians John Snow, who discovered that the contaminated water from a particular pump in London was the cause of a cholera outbreak, Ignaz Semmelweis, who showed that doctors washing their hands could prevent deaths in post-partum women, Rudolf Virchow, the “father of social medicine”, who showed an outbreak of typhus among miners was the result of the social conditions they lived in, Louis Pasteur, Robert Koch, and Joseph Lister who proved that germs caused those diseases, and 20th century doctor Jonas Salk, who found the vaccine against polio. Does Mona Hanna-Attisha’s work rise to this standard?

Well, it may not in terms of the total lives saved, although it is worth noting that, like the work noted above, it is about public health, about populations, not individual interventions, and thus has a great impact on so many (despite the fact that in the US at least 95% of all “health spending” is on individual medical care, not public health). But she is heroic in that she stood for the truth and for the health of the children in defiance of the powerful who were trying to minimize or cover up the problem, and who tried for a while the “best defense is a good offense” strategy of attacking her, shamefully. Indeed, this is what it takes to be a hero, to not only do something important that has an impact on many, but even more to do it when you have to stand against the establishment, the PTB, the powers-that-be. This takes a great deal of courage, as well as commitment.

In Kansas, the legislature legalized concealed-carry of guns a couple of years ago, but exempted schools and hospitals until July 2017. As that date approaches in 18 months, there is little indication that the exemption will be extended, and there is great concern. A recent survey found that 70% of faculty and staff at the 6 state Regents universities oppose the law. Faculty are worried about telling students that they are failing them while they sit in their offices armed; doctors worry that if a crazy person pulls a gun in clinic, several others will draw down and make it more dangerous, police worry that they won’t even know who created the original threat. The data shows that there is a real risk of more homicide with more access and carriage of guns; “natural studies” of homicides showed a marked increase after Missouri eliminated its permit laws in 2007 and decrease after Connecticut tightened its laws after Sandy Hook.[1] [2] Moreover, 60% of gun deaths are suicides, and these are also dramatically decreased by making guns less easily accessible.[3]  Doctors and researchers need to speak out about the public health implications of easier access to guns. Luckily, many are; others are worried that perhaps the notoriously-vindictive Kansas legislature may respond by cutting funding for the university. These people will not become heroes, but they may keep their jobs and their funding.

Being a whistleblower is not easy. It is not a way to have a calm, peaceful life. Some folks have made a lot of money and retired far from those they blew the whistle on, but many more I know of are, like Roger Boisjoly, are shunned, forced out of their jobs, threatened, and may even suffer PTSD. It is not easy to take on the PTB. Better to work in their interests; for his great work as emergency manager in Flint, Darrell Earley has just been named emergency head of the Detroit Public Schools!

The full impact of the Flint lead-poisoning disaster is not yet known, because the full impact of these elevated lead levels on the brains and bones of Flint’s largely poor and African-American children will take years to take their toll. Even then, and even if, because they are treated the damage is limited, we will never know what kid who grew up seemingly ok and normal might otherwise have been brilliant.

She might have become a doctor, maybe even a heroic one like Dr. Hanna-Attisha.

[1] Rudolph, KE et al., Association Between Connecticut’s Permit-to-Purchase Handgun Law and Homicides Am J Public Health. 2015;105:e49–e54. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2015.302703
[2] Webster D, et al., Effects of the Repeal of Missouri’s Handgun Purchaser Licensing Law on Homicides, Journal of Urban Health: Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine, Vol. 91, No. 2, doi:10.1007/s11524-014-9865-8
[3]  Crifasi CK et al., Effects of changes in permit-to-purchase handgun laws in Connecticut
and Missouri on suicide rates, Preventive Medicine 79 (2015) 43–49

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