The federal government said Wednesday it will expand educational programs in Flint, Michigan, to try to help kids get past the effects of having lead in their drinking water.
The Health and Human Services Department said it would use $3.6 million in emergency funding to provide transportation to families to help them get bottled drinking water; expand the Head Start program for 78 preschoolers; open new classrooms for 51 kids in the worst-affected areas; lengthen the school year by three weeks and take other actions.
"Early education is one of the most important things we can do to help children overcome the effects of lead," said Dr. Nicole Lurie, who heads preparedness and response at HHS.
"This funding for Head Start and Early Head Start will allow Flint's existing Head Start programs to provide enhanced and expanded services, including additional classrooms, home visiting support, and transportation for families who need to visit the doctor."
It's not clear just how many children have been affected by the extra lead that has leached into Flint's drinking water supply. Estimates range between 6,000 and 12,000.
The problem started when Flint changed its source of water from treated water from Detroit to water from the Flint River. The river water was high in salts that corroded the plumbing and allowed lead to leach into the water.
Unborn babies and very young children are most vulnerable to the effects of lead. The heavy metal destroys nerve cells, including developing brain tissue. These effects cannot be reversed.
There's no safe level of lead.
It's not entirely clear if beefing up early childhood education can help the kids who may have suffered brain damage from the lead-tainted water.
"There are no studies that specifically examine the impact of early childhood educational interventions on cognitive or behavioral outcomes for children who have been exposed to lead," the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says in a report. But it says early intervention helps kids damaged by other conditions. The key is getting it started quickly.
"These services can begin quickly, serving children for the remainder of this school year and in some cases throughout the next school year," said Dr. Blanca Enriquez, Director of the Office of Head Start.