Investigation Finds Flint River Water May Have Caused Rashes, Skin Problems—but No Explanation for Hair Loss

Flint River Water May Have Caused Rashes, Skin Problems

The results of a joint federal and state investigation into claims that Flint River water caused rashes and hair loss have been released. This latest development in the beleaguered town’s story found that water taken from the Flint River may have been connected to rashes or skin problems reported by residents, but falls short of being able to say it was an actual cause.

In Brief: Flint Water Background

In April of 2014, the town of Flint, Michigan, switched from Detroit’s water system to drawing from the Flint River as a cost-saving measure. This water ended up corroding the city’s water pipes and causing lead to leech into the system. Eventually, in October of 2015, the city began drawing water from Lake Huron instead. The investigation into claims of hair loss and skin problems, which date back to the original switch to the Flint River, was launched in February of 2016.

Investigation Summary

  • 429 Flint residents participated in the investigation
  • Of these, 91% (390) agreed to be interviewed. Only those who were interviewed were offered dermatology evaluation or home water sampling
  • Of the 390, 55% (213) had the water from their home tested. Since some of the participants were living together, this meant 170 homes had their water tested.
  • Of the 390, 31% (122) were seen by a dermatologist
  • Of the 122 seen by a dermatologist, 80% (97) were classified as having a skin condition “possibly related to water exposure”
  • Of the 390, 87% (338) provided a date they believe their symptoms started. 56% of these people (189) reported an onset before October 2015 but that symptoms worsened after the switch to Lake Huron. 44% (149) reported symptoms starting after the October switch

Although the investigators could not tell what the water quality in each resident’s home was like during the period the city was drawing on the Flint River, enough general sampling of water from that period was able to be performed. It found that the pH, chlorine levels, and water hardness of Flint municipal water during the 2014/2015 period could plausibly have been able to cause the skin dryness, skin irritation, and eczema-like rashes residents were reporting. The investigators theorized that psychological stress of the Flint water crisis and changed bathing habits in response to water concerns, like harsher soaps, may have also played a role.

The main anomaly the investigation noted was over claims by some respondents that their rashes, skin problems, or hair loss either started or were made worse after the October 2015 switch to Lake Huron. The lake’s water has been comprehensively tested and the results don’t show anything that could cause or worsen rashes or hair loss. This suggests that residents may be misremembering certain things or that whatever is aggravating their symptoms is not from Lake Huron.

The investigators urge any Flint resident who is still experiencing hair loss or skin problems to speak with a doctor or community health center.

“Investigation: Pre-October 2015 Flint Water, Sourced from Flint River, Might Have Caused Rashes, Other Irritant Conditions,” HHS web site, August 23, 2016;, last accessed August 24, 2016.