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In Flint and beyond, water should come unleaded

We’ve all watched the unfolding events in Flint, Michigan with growing dismay. A decision to cut corners, compounded by mismanagement and secrecy, resulted in nearly 8,000 children being exposed to lead. And many have asked whether this would have happened if the community had been wealthier and whiter.

The tragedy in Flint is, above all, an injustice. Our first priority must be helping those families at risk by removing the lead service lines to their home and providing the long-term resources needed to support the health and well-being of the children impacted by this damaging neurotoxin. 

{mosads}But Flint is also emblematic of two larger issues we must face as a nation. The truth is that Flint is both a question of environmental injustice and evidence of a truly national problem affecting kids everywhere. We cannot act as if Flint is an isolated case in either sense.

As a matter of social justice, there are poor communities across the country that receive far more than their fair share of pollution. And when it comes to lead, there are homes in towns across America that have lead in their drinking water.

The first thing to know about lead is that there is no safe level. Even in small amounts it is a dangerous neurotoxin, and exposure in childhood can lead to a lifetime of learning and behavioral problems and reduced IQ, and extremely low levels. In the United States, an estimated half a million children have elevated levels of lead in their blood. Poor kids are three times as likely to be affected, African-American kids have twice the risk.

The lead in their blood most often starts out in paint on walls, and in old lead pipes that deliver drinking water to their homes. Thirty-four million houses have the paint, between seven and ten million have lead pipes. In Flint, the lead from the pipes was dislodged by a change in the water supply, but it could also happen from a physical disturbance such as large truck passing your house and shaking the old pipes.

The good news is that we know government action can make a difference.  Children’s blood lead levels are down dramatically from the 1990s due to a national strategy of removing lead from consumer products like gasoline, improving how we manage lead paint and pipes in place to prevent lead exposure, and identifying and supporting children who have elevated blood lead levels.  The challenge before us with lead service lines is that the methods we’ve used to manage the risk—corrosion control—can fail—and unpredictably so. With seven to ten million homes across the country with lead service lines, this is a substantial risk. But it’s one that we can not only better manage but eliminate completely.

We must make lead pipe service line replacement a priority. Beginning but not ending in Flint. My organization, Environmental Defense Fund, is committed to making this happen for communities across the US. Achieving this will require commitments from a diversity of groups including the utilities, mayors, public health officials, EPA and Congress.  We applaud the announcement made just last week by the American Water Works Association calling for the removal of all lead service lines. Congress needs to invest making this happen by supporting communities across the country, strengthening our lead hazard system, and ensuring that low-income communities get the support they need.

For its part, EPA must implement the recommendations of National Drinking Water Advisory Council, which requires utilities to develop long term solutions, promoting frequent testing, and alert residents to high lead levels. If EPA doesn’t act, Congress should establish mandatory deadlines.  It will take time to get mandatory rules put into place and communities shouldn’t have to wait.  So to accelerate our efforts to get lead service lines out of the ground, utilities, public health and environmental organizations, and political leaders can commit to developing and implementing plans for lead service line removal and—critically—expanded water testing.  There are communities like Boston helping to lead the way.  

The crisis in Flint has brought two questions into stark relief. First, faced with a problem like lead exposure to households everywhere, are we willing to make the investments necessary to live up to our rhetoric about the importance of protecting our kids?  And, just as important, are we truly committed to giving all children – rich and poor, and from every background – an equal start in life? How all of us respond in the months ahead will give us the answers.

Regas is executive director at Environmental Defense Fund.


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