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Aug 23, 5:26 PM EDT

Experts conclude Flint River might have caused skin rashes


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AP Photo/Carlos Osorio

LANSING, Mich. (AP) -- The improperly treated river water that Flint residents bathed and cleaned with for 1 years may have caused skin rashes that possibly worsened because people became mentally stressed and changed their hygiene over concerns about the water, federal and state officials said Tuesday.

The months-long, joint investigation found no definitive link between the Michigan city's 2014 switch to the Flint River and rashes because of a lack of water samples from that time from the homes of individuals who participated in the study.

But Dr. Nicole Lurie with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, citing data from the water treatment plant, said a team of chemical exposure experts and dermatologists "found evidence supporting Flint residents' concern that water from the Flint River might have led to skin problems." Lurie said the city's current water from Lake Huron, to which Flint returned in October amid a lead contamination crisis, does not contain metals and minerals at levels known to be associated with skin problems.

After the water supply was changed in April 2014 while the deficit-ridden city of nearly 100,000 people was under state emergency management, residents began complaining about rashes, hair loss and the water's color, odor and taste. People reported rashes before and after the switch back to a Detroit-area water system.

Dr. Walter Barkey, one of four Flint-area dermatologists who volunteered to help with the probe, said "marked fluctuations" in pH/acidity, hardness and chlorine levels while the Flint River was the water source "could really explain the most common type of rash found in the study which was eczema."

The study included roughly 400 people who were surveyed by investigators. Participants were offered a free appointment with a dermatologist.

About 77 percent of those responding said they noticed changes in the tap water at the time their symptoms began; 80 percent reported changing their showering or bathing habits. Many had what researchers called a "pre-existing condition" - chronic disease (41 percent), skin conditions (18 percent) and allergies (28 percent).

The report said correctly diagnosing rashes is "complicated" because they can be caused by many seasonal factors, such as humidity and temperature, along with soaps used and the dryness of one's skin. Almost all inflammatory skin conditions are exacerbated by psychological stress and physical contact with irritating chemicals, according to the study.

Researchers reported several limitations with their investigation, including no residence-specific historic water sampling data or any comparison to the occurrence of rashes in a similarly sized city with adequate anti-corrosion treatment.

They documented 390 rash and 175 hair loss complaints.

Michigan's chief medical executive, Dr. Eden Wells, said the decision on whether to shower or bathe with the municipal water "is an individual one. We recommend that residents with concerns discuss their symptoms with a doctor to help them make decisions about their use of the water."

Skin problems are among many health issues associated with using the Flint River for 18 months.

Lead from old pipes leached into homes and businesses because of a lack of corrosion control chemicals, leading to elevated levels of the dangerous toxin in young children. There were E. coli detections and high levels of a carcinogenic disinfectant byproduct.

Experts also suspect a deadly Legionnaires' disease outbreak was tied to the water.

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Online:

Rash study: http://bit.ly/2bLTpol

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Follow David Eggert at http://twitter.com/DavidEggert00 . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/author/david-eggert

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