#1 Widespread Lead Contamination Threatens Children’s Health, and Could Triple Household Water Bills

by Project Censored
Published: Updated:

In December 2016, M.B. Pell and Joshua Schneyer of Reuters reported that nearly three thousand neighborhoods across the US had levels of lead poisoning more than double the rates found in Flint, Michigan at the peak of its contamination crisis. Blood tests showed that more than 1,100 of those communities had rates of lead contamination “at least four times higher” than had been found in Flint.

In January 2016, President Obama had declared a federal emergency in Flint, based on lead contamination of the city’s water supply. In that case, corrosive river water leached lead from old pipes; as a result, 5 percent of the children screened in Flint had high blood lead levels. By comparison, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that 2.5 percent of all US children under the age of six—approximately 500,000 children—have elevated blood lead levels. (The CDC defines five micrograms per deciliter as its threshold for elevated blood lead levels in children up to age six. In 2012, the CDC lowered this threshold from ten to five micrograms to reflect medical consensus that even low levels of lead exposure can do permanent harm to children.)

In early 2016, Flint’s lead-contaminated water featured prominently and frequently in the news; however, news about the health plight of Flint’s residents quickly peaked, and it never emphasized the full scope of the issue. Unlike Flint, the “lead hotspots” identified in Pell and Schneyer’s report have received “little attention or funding.”

Pell and Schneyer wrote that the communities affected by lead poisoning “stretch from Warren, Pennsylvania . . . where 36 percent of children tested had high lead levels, to . . . Goat Island, Texas, where a quarter of tests showed poisoning. In some pockets of Baltimore, Cleveland and Philadelphia, where lead poisoning has spanned generations, the rate of elevated tests over the last decade was 40 to 50 percent.” Across the US, they reported, “legacy lead”—which includes not only leached lead from faulty plumbing but also crumbling paint and industrial waste—continues to thwart national efforts to eradicate childhood lead poisoning.

As part of a special series of investigations on lead poisoning across the US, titled “Unsafe at Any Level,” Pell and Schneyer requested testing data at the neighborhood level from all fifty states. Their focus on census tracts and zip code areas allowed them to identify neighborhoods “whose lead poisoning problems may be obscured in broader surveys,” such as those focused on statewide or countywide rates.

Twenty-one states responded with data, allowing Pell and Schneyer to identify 2,606 census tracts and 278 zip code areas with rates of lead poisoning at least double Flint’s rate. (Pell and Schneyer reported that some states’ health departments did not have the data, or did not respond to records requests, while other states would not share the data they did have. The twenty-one reporting states are home to about 61 percent of the US population.) Interactive maps embedded in their December 2016 report detail their findings for census tracts and zip code areas in the cities of St. Joseph, Missouri; Milwaukee; South Bend, Indiana; Cleveland; Baltimore; Fresno; Los Angeles; and Buffalo. As one expert, Dr. Helen Egger, chair of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at NYU Langone Medical Center’s Child Study Center, told Pell and Schneyer, “The disparities you’ve found between different areas have stark implications . . . The national mean doesn’t mean anything for a kid who lives in a place where the risks are much higher.”

Nevertheless, just eleven US states, plus Washington, DC, mandate blood lead tests for all children; some other states mandate tests for children in areas with known exposure risks. But even in states that require testing, Schneyer and Pell reported, “more than half the children were missing a test.” The “sweeping” testing gap they documented in their June 2016 report leaves children “vulnerable to prolonged lead exposure, among the most insidious, and preventable, early health risks. Lead poisoning can lead to a lifetime of severe mental and physical ailments.”

The World Health Organization has linked lead exposure to children’s physical ailments—including anemia, kidney dysfunction, and high blood pressure—and developmental issues—such as impaired peripheral nerve function and decreases in growth, hearing, and IQ. “By school age,” Schneyer and Pell wrote, “children with a history of lead exposure can exhibit poor attention and impulse control, with lower intelligence and academic performance—a stigma that can follow them through life.” Their article quoted Dr. Morri Markowitz, director of the lead poisoning program for the Children’s Hospital at Montefiore in New York City: “The lower your IQ, the more trouble learning, the more likely you are to drop out of school, to be delinquent, to be incarcerated.”

In January 2017, Schneyer and Pell reported that, based on their previous investigation, “From California to Pennsylvania, local leaders, health officials and researchers are advancing measures to protect children from the toxic threat. They include more blood-lead screening, property inspections, hazard abatement and community outreach programs.”

As Farron Cousins reported for DeSmogBlog in January 2017, “Lead pipes are time bombs” and water contamination is to be expected. The US relies on an estimated 1.2 million miles of lead pipes for municipal delivery of drinking water, and much of this aging infrastructure is reaching or has exceeded its lifespan. Citing Pell and Schneyer’s December 2016 Reuters report, Cousins characterized Flint as “just a tiny piece in a much larger story” about a US water crisis characterized by both contamination and lack of affordability.

Declaring this the “Era of Infrastructure Replacement,” in 2012 the American Water Works Association estimated that a complete overhaul of the nation’s aging water systems would require an investment of $1 trillion over the next twenty-five years, which could triple the cost of household water bills. As Cousins reported, a Michigan State University study, conducted by Elizabeth A. Mack and Sarah Wrase and published in January 2017, found that, “while water rates are currently unaffordable for an estimated 11.9% of households, the conservative estimates of rising rates used in this study highlight that this number could grow to 35.6% in the next five years.” (11.9 percent equates to 13.8 million US households; 35.6 percent would amount to 40.9 million households.) As Cousins concluded, “While the water contamination crisis will occasionally steal a headline or two, virtually no attention has been paid to the fact that we’re pricing a third of United States citizens out of the water market.”

In May 2017, Democracy Now! reported that thousands of homeowners in Flint, Michigan, were facing tax liens and ultimately foreclosures if they failed to pay outstanding water bills, despite the fact that officials acknowledge that Flint’s water is still unsafe to drink without a filter.

Joshua Schneyer and M.B. Pell, “Unsafe at Any Level: Millions of American Children Missing Early Lead Tests, Reuters Finds,” Reuters, June 9, 2016, http://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/lead-poisoning-testing-gaps/.

M.B. Pell and Joshua Schneyer, “Off the Charts: The Thousands of U.S. Locales Where Lead Poisoning is Worse Than in Flint,” Reuters, December 19, 2016, http://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/usa-lead-testing/.

Farron Cousins, “America is Suffering from a Very Real Water Crisis That Few are Acknowledging,” DeSmogBlog, January 24, 2017, https://www.DeSmogBlog.com/2017/01/24/america-suffering-very-real-water-crisis-few-are-acknowledging.

Student Researchers: Jessie Eastman and Allison Kopicki (North Central College)

Faculty Evaluator: Steve Macek (North Central College)