Mysterious Rashes Plague Flint Water Consumers

Shortly after the city of Flint shifted its water source from Detroit-provided water to water drawn from the notoriously polluted Flint River, clients at Wellness Services, Inc. in Flint began to complain. The water smelled. It was rusty, often coming from the tap the color of coffee. It tasted wrong.
Then the strange rashes began.
Teresa Springer, director of programs for Wellness — an AIDS service organization in Flint, said most of the clients have reported rashes since the change over. The organization has been offering bottled water on its premises for over a year, and has been distributing water filters to clients. Springer said about one in five of the organization's clients have obtained water filters from the agency. She notes many more have likely accessed filters from other sources.
Despite this temporal relationship to the water change, public health officials say "there is no scientific link connecting rashes to the change in the water source." In fact, public health officials issued a release on Jan. 27 encouraging parents to continue to use the water from the system to bathe their children.
"Based on current testing and guidance from our federal partners, it's important to reiterate to families that bathing is safe for adults and children in Flint," the press release quoted Dr. Eden Wells, chief medical executive with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, as saying. "Naturally, people in Flint continue to be concerned about water quality and our department is working closely with officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as the local provider community to monitor all health issues that may be related to water. At this time there is no evidence to suggest this guidance should change."
State health officials tweaked that message. They are now investigating the rashes and tracking them.
"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," said Wells. "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."
"It's very disconcerting," said Springer, "they tell us to do this; then four days later tell us no, don't do that."
That release from the state's Joint Information Center — a centralized information source initiated as part of the emergency response — noted the state was working with federal health officials at the CDC to develop a reporting and monitoring program, and that local and state health officials had begun meeting with local residents who had complained about rashes. Health officials are asking medical providers to report possible Flint water associated skin conditions to the state health officials. The patients will then be interviewed and the water in the home sampled.
Wellness officials are not buying the recommendations from the state, Springer said. The organization is advising clients to minimize contact with the water.
"We tell them not to bathe in it," she said. "We recommend that they do a wash down — you know, with a washcloth — rather than showering. But we also tell them if they are going to shower — because some people do want to shower — we tell them to limit their time in the shower and to not shower every day."
The water crisis is not just impacting people living with HIV being served by Wellness, Springer noted. The organization's syringe exchange clients have also reported adverse reactions when using unfiltered Flint water for injection purposes.
"Our syringe clients who are using Flint water report infections at their injection sites," she said. "When they stop using the unfiltered Flint water, those infections stop."
Despite the new plan to identify and investigate the ongoing rash situation from federal and state health officials, Springer said her organization has not been contacted.
Springer said she and others in Flint are frustrated by the contradictory advice being issued by health officials and believe "there is one big cover up."