Facts from the courtroom
April 29, 2022

Public health officials sound the alarm on Aaron Specht’s junk science bone lead test

On April 27-28, Aaron Specht, Ph.D., an assistant professor at Purdue University, took to the stand. 

Specht led a highly controversial program to test bone lead levels in Flint children using modified, hand-held devices (called pXRF). Originally manufactured for scrap metal recycling, mining and other industrial uses, these devices have never been approved or deemed safe for use on humans, much less children, and have not been proven to deliver reliable results. 

Leading public health officials in Flint, including Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha and Dr. Lawrence Reynolds, have sounded the alarm on Specht’s testing program, which they believe has needlessly exposed children to high doses of potentially harmful radiation. The manufacturer of the device has also requested it not be used on Flint children, citing lack of FDA approval and safety concerns.  

The use of this junk science with potentially harmful health consequences on the children of Flint is yet another example of the disrespect that continues to be shown to the people of Flint.

Here’s what you need to know.

Specht is not a medical doctor, and his studies are questionable at best.

  • Specht is not a medical doctor nor a toxicologist. He is not licensed to practice medicine or provide medical opinions. 
  • Specht did not receive institutional review board approval for the studies he conducted on Flint children and he has not published any papers regarding his findings.
  • Specht’s previous studies using the pXRF on humans were conducted in countries with a history of rampant corruption and human rights abuses, particularly of children, and far less rigorous health and safety regulations than the United States.
  • Third-party experts have been unable to replicate Specht’s testing because he has not shared his protocols with them, further underscoring the unreliability of his studies.  
  • For his testimony, Specht prepared slides using the Harvard logo and branding, however there is zero affiliation between Harvard and Specht’s studies on Flint children. 

Specht has been unable to show that pXRF devices accurately measure lead exposure in children.

  • Specht’s own peer-reviewed research has shown that these devices do not produce accurate bone lead measurements in children and have too high of an error rate to be reliable. 
  • Even if Specht’s pXRF measurements were accurate, there is no established standard for what constitutes “elevated” bone lead levels as the CDC has never issued any recommendations or guidance on the subject.
  • Moreover, Specht’s measurements proclaim to measure bone lead accumulated over the course of an entire lifetime and, by his own admission, cannot trace lead exposure to specific time periods or sources.

Numerous health experts have raised serious safety concerns over the use of the pXRF device on Flint children.

  • Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the Flint pediatrician who first found elevated levels of lead in the blood of Flint children during the water crisis, has highlighted the unknown and potentially harmful radiation risks for children.
  • Dr. Lawrence Reynolds, health advisor to Flint Mayor Sheldon Neeley, called the tests “a human rights violation…. The Tuskegee experiment all over again.” Reynolds said the use of radiation outside of medical necessity is unethical and that the X-ray devices being used were not designed for this purpose. 
  • Dr. Reynolds told 7 Action News: “I’ve taken care of children in the Flint area for 29 years. And if you want to see a pediatrician get worked up, just abuse children. And this is abuse.”
  • The manufacturer of the device has itself requested that Specht stop using the device on Flint children due to safety concerns. In a letter to the Napoli Shkolnik law firm in May 2021, Thermo Fisher Scientific Vice President and General Manager Chloe Hansen-Toone explained that the “user’s guide explicitly instruct all users to ‘never point your analyzer at yourself or anyone else when the shutter is open.”
  • ABC News reported that a Flint woman who was 28 weeks pregnant was given a bone scan by the Napoli Shkolnik law firm, but said she was never asked whether she was pregnant. 

pXRF devices were never intended to be used on humans, much less children, and have never been approved for such use. 

  • Thermo Fisher Scientific created portable XRF devices for use in mining and exploration, scrap metal recycling, and other industrial purposes. 
  • Thermo Fisher has vigorously protested Specht’s use of its pXRF machines on Flint children, explaining that the devices were not designed to measure bone lead levels in people and only supported research on a “limited number of occasions” with universities. The research conducted at these universities has been limited to adult patients and human cadavers. 
  • The pXRF devices are not approved by the FDA or any other agency for use on humans as its safety and effectiveness has not been established.
  • Blood lead is the universally accepted methodology for measuring lead exposure in humans and is also recommended by the Center for Disease Control (CDC). No other country is using pXRF to measure bone lead in people. 

Specht’s studies of Flint children did not adhere to standard scientific protocols.

  • There is no scientific way to conclude that plaintiffs’ bone lead levels are elevated because Specht did not test a control group of non-Flint children and therefore did not establish a baseline. 
  • Specht conceded that the reference value he used in his study of Flint children (10 µg/g) was derived purely from literature and based on studies of adults. 
  • Specht has not come up with any reference value for what bone lead levels in children would show a “persistent intense exposure.”

When questioning Specht, plaintiffs’ attorneys relied heavily on confirmation of “scientific certainty,” a controversial phrase that leading criminal justice groups have advocated against. 

  • The phrase “scientific certainty” has no scientific origin and no scientific meaning. 
  • The National Commission on Forensic Science recommended that the phrase “degree of scientific certainty” no longer be used in courtrooms because it has no roots in science. 
  • The Innocence Project, which works to free the innocent and create fair, compassionate and equitable systems of justice, has called the phrase “misleading” and recommended it stop being used in courtrooms.