Early in 2016, a news story about dirty water in Flint, Michigan hit headlines. It wasn’t just the toxic drinking water that disturbed the public, it was the fact that drinking water with dangerously high levels of lead could be found in the United States. This was a shock, but what the establishment press under-reported was that the situation in Flint was no isolated incident. Although local newspapers and news websites ran stories informing their audiences about local water contamination levels, it wasn’t until M.B. Pell and Joshua Schneyer of Reuters published their special report, “Off the Charts,” in December 2016, that the full scope of the country’s lead-contaminated water crisis came to light. Lead poisoning can slow developmental growth, cause abdominal pain, vomiting, seizures, coma, and even death.
Pell and Schneyer found communities affected by lead poisoning that “stretch[ed] 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.”
Although lead poisoning is harmful to all humans, children—whose bodies are still developing—are most negatively impacted. A pediatrician treating children affected by lead poisoning in Flint, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, described “tons of evidence” showing the impacts of lead on children, including lowered IQ scores, behavioral impacts, and even links to criminality. “If you were to put something in a population to keep them down for generation and generations to come, it would be lead,” Hanna-Attisha observed.
Most lead poisoning is a consequence of “legacy lead,” or lead that comes from crumbling infrastructure, peeling paint, and other industrial waste from the past. Low-income communities are typically the hardest hit. There are about 75 million homes across the country built before 1980, meaning they’re most likely to contain some lead plumbing. That’s more than half of the country’s housing units, according to the Census Bureau. It seems like an easy fix to recommend replacing aging, lead pipes, but for the lower-income communities that are most impacted, this process will take years of work and significant allocation of public money.
In the meantime, another issue is getting help for those who have tested for high levels of lead. The costs of running tests and treatment is also expensive. “Even in some of the highest risk areas around the country, many small children go untested for lead,” Schneyer and Pell reported in June, 2016. Just 11 states and the District of Columbia mandate blood lead testing for all children; several others mandate testing for children with exposure risks. Nevertheless, in some of the highest risk areas, children go untested.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that approximately half a million U.S. children ages 1-5 have blood lead levels above the reference level at which it recommends public health actions be initiated.
M. B. Pell and Joshua Schneyer, “Off the Charts: Reuters Finds Lead Levels Higher Than Flint’s in Thousands of Locales,” Reuters, December 19, 2016, http://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/usa-lead-testing/.
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/.
Student Researcher: Allison Kopicki (North Central College)
Faculty Evaluator: Steve Macek (North Central College)