Lead Poisoning Crisis in Flint Provokes Call for Federal Investment in Nation’s Public Water Infrastructure

Posted March 30, 2016

MP3 Interview with Mary Grant, director of the Food and Water Watch Public Water for All campaign, conducted by Melinda Tuhus


The lead poisoning water crisis continues in Flint, Michigan, the result of a state decision to change the source of drinking water for the low-income and largely African American population from a reliable clean source to what in reality was a contaminated one, in an effort to save money. On March 17, when Michigan’s Republican Gov. Rick Snyder and EPA administrator Gina McCarthy testified before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, legislators asked both officials to resign. But the likelihood of accountability for this series of tragic errors, seems remote.

Remediation and replacement of water pipes in Flint will cost millions dollars to fix. Unfortunately, many residents, especially children, will now face a lifetime of negative health effects as a result of the reckless decisions made by state officials. If anything good came out of the crisis, it was the interest across the country in finding out if other communities' water was also contaminated with lead. Sadly, test results find that Flint is not alone among the nation’s municipalities to have a lead contamination problem, with some experiencing even higher levels of lead than that found in Flint.

Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Mary Grant, director of the Public Water for All campaign initiated by the group Food and Water Watch. Here, she discusses the widespread problem of lead found in water, steps residents can take to reduce the threat of lead-poisoning, and the growing danger to public health as the nation ignores the urgent need to repair and rebuild our aging public water infrastructure.

MARY GRANT: Lead in drinking water is a big issue in the United States. Lead in school water in particular is a concern, because it’s often not tested for unless the school has its own private well and is considered its own public water system. There’s no requirement at the federal level for schools to test for it. There’s also no federal funding for the schools to replace those lead pipes. What we really need to do is to open up our state revolving fund programs to provide grant programs to schools to help remove lead plumbing, pipes and fixtures. But we also need to energize and reinvest in our water infrastructure; we need more federal investment in our water infrastructure and in our state revolving fund programs so we can provide these grants to schools but also to systems nationwide.

The latest survey I saw from the American Waterworks Association said that the U.S. has an estimated 6.1 million lead service lines. So that’s the problem we saw in Flint. They had these lead service lines; they didn’t add anti-corrosive chemicals to their water when they switched their water source to the Flint River, which was heavily polluted, which caused lead to leach out of the pipes. So nationwide, we have 6.1 million lead service lines that serve 15 million to 22 million people across the country and will cost about $30 billion to remove the remaining lead service lines, according to estimates from the American Waterworks Association. So we really need federal support to help replace lead service lines and also to remove lead piping and plumbing fixtures in homes and schools.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Some of the worst contamination in schools seemed to be in the lower grades and even pre-K, where kids were brushing their teeth after lunch, using that poisoned water.

MARY GRANT: There is no level of lead that is safe for children. Young, developing minds are the most vulnerable to lead poisoning. As they form all these neural connections, they are very susceptible to damage from lead poisoning. It’s a very vulnerable time when they’re in nursery schools, elementary schools, to be exposed to lead. So we really need to remove the lead from water, especially in those places where you have these vulnerable populations being exposed to lead. It causes a lifetime of consequences to have that early childhood exposure to lead poisoning; it affects your IQ, your development, your capacity going forward. I know in Flint they’re talking about all these support services that they're now going to need to help the children deal with the fallout of having been exposed and poisoned from lead in their water.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Mary Grant, this problem is going to cost billions of dollars to fix, and our government at all levels has not been putting money into fixing our infrastructure. What can people do in the meantime to provide safer water for children? And do you have any idea what percentage of schools or homes have actually been tested for lead? Maybe people are being poisoned and don't even know it.

MARY GRANT: Yeah, that is a big concern, especially with schools because there is no requirement at the federal level for most schools to test for lead. And so you have that gap in knowledge and that gap in data and transparency in our exposures. At the home level, if you’re served by a public water system, the utility is required by federal law to test a certain percentage of homes that are most likely to have lead in their pipelines, to test for the lead levels there. And so they issue a water quality report every July 1 that you can read to see what percentage of homes tested above the federal action level, which is 15 parts per billion of lead in the water.

I think that we do need to have more congressional will – political will – in Congress to actually provide the funding that we need. In the wake of the Flint crisis, we're seeing that there needs to be that renewed federal investment in our water infrastructure. We do have these state revolving fund programs that have provided federal assistance to states to provide assistance to communities with the greatest needs. And these are well-functioning programs; of course, there’s always room for improvement. There’s also been several bills in Congress already to provide increased funding; they’re going into ongoing appropriations about what those levels are going to be for this year. So we really need Congress to appropriate the correct amount of money for these dedicated federal funding sources, and then we also need to have a dedicated federal funding source for our water and sewer systems in the long term so that we can have safe and affordable water service.

It can be really hard especially if you’re a small or rural system, you don’t have the resources in your community to make these improvements that are necessary to protect public health. That’s why the federal government plays a big role, especially in small or rural communities.

Homes, if you can afford it, you can have a filter on your water tap. You can make sure that it’s certified to remove lead, but not every household can afford it, and often we see that households that can least afford to filter their own water are the ones most likely to be exposed to lead, because it is an environmental injustice issue that disproportionally affects low-income households.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Do you see this as part of the general failure of infrastructure investment in the U.S.?

MARY GRANT: Yes, nationally the American Society of Civil Engineers have given our water and sewer infrastructure a D rating. Many systems have old lead and cast iron pipes that need to be replaced to ensure that we have access to safe public drinking water, because many of our nation’s water systems were built in the early 20th century and they’re reaching the end of their useful life span.

For more information on the group’s work to ensure the public’s access to safe, affordable water, visit www.foodandwaterwatch.org/campaign/public-water-all/ and foodandwaterwatch.org

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