Make no mistake. Lead is a neurotoxin and can cause serious and irreversible damage. Children are the most vulnerable. Exposure can happen by inhalation of fumes or dust, eating paint chips, playing with contaminated toys or on contaminated land. Lead exposure can happen by washing their hands, taking a bath, eating food cooked in contaminated water and drinking a glass of what should be clean water. Unfortunately, the on-going lead contaminated water crisis in Flint, Michigan appears to be the canary in a coal mine. According to a USA Today investigation, over 350 schools and day care centers in 42 states have tested positive for lead contamination in the water:
“States with the most were Maine, with 44 samples taken from drinking fountains and faucets showing high lead levels at 26 facilities; Pennsylvania, with 43 samples testing high among 37 facilities; and New Jersey, with 34 high readings among 23 facilities. Some schools and day cares failed lead tests four or even five times.”
Why is lead so toxic? According to the National Resources Defense Council, lead inhibits the “oxygen and calcium transport and altering nerve transmission in the brain [and] lead builds up in soft tissue — kidneys, bone marrow, liver, and brain — as well as bones and teeth… Studies show that even low concentrations of lead can cause permanent damage including reduced IQ, learning disabilities, and shortened attention span. Some scientists believe that low-level chronic lead exposure in childhood can alter secretion of the human growth hormone, stunting growth and promoting obesity.”
Only 10% of U.S. schools and daycare facilities are required to test for lead in water. Some are testing voluntarily.
You may recall when tetraethyl lead was phased out from gasoline between 1975 and 1986. In 1971, it was decided that federal housing must stop using lead based paint. In 1978, following decades of activism and outrage, lead paint was banned in paint available to U.S. consumers, but U.S. companies still market it abroad. Parents do their best to protect their children from toys, paint and gasoline these days, but what about water? In most instances, they aren’t even aware of the problem until physical symptoms appear. This can also be confusing. Initially symptoms of abdominal pain, cramping, headaches, rashes, irritability could be emanating from a variety of conditions, including simply eating the wrong food. Who was thinking about lead in their water before Flint? And why is this now happening nationwide? According to Alana Semuel’s report in The Atlantic, one major fault line is our decaying water infrastructure:
“In 2013, America received a ‘D’ in the drinking-water category of the American Society for Civil Engineers’ Report Card for America’s Infrastructure. The report found that most of the nation’s drinking-water infrastructure is “nearing the end of its useful life.” Replacing the nation’s pipes would cost more than $1 trillion. The country’s wastewater infrastructure also got a ‘D’ grade.”
Where is the EPA in all of this? Here’s what USA Today says:
“The EPA estimates that about 90,000 public schools and half a million child-care facilities are not regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act because they depend on water sources such as municipal utilities expected to test their own water. That means parents have no assurance lead isn’t seeping into children’s water from a school building’s pipes, solder or fixtures.”
Who pays for the retrofit of water infrastructure across America?
The cost of testing is minimal compared to the costs of damage to children. The costs of refurbishing an ailing pipe system can be daunting as well. Here are two examples from USA Today:
“The tiny one-school Klondike Independent School District, which sits amid a cotton patch in Lamesa, Texas, plans to replace its entire water system at a cost of $600,000. Superintendent Steve McLaren called the expense ‘a big chunk of our money.’
Conley Elementary, a rural New Jersey school with five action-triggering water samples from 2012 through 2014, tried several fixes before finding one that worked. School leaders shut down water fountains and cafeteria sinks and began using bottled water for drinking and cooking, attempted to make the water less corrosive, then finally decided to re-pipe the entire system out to the well at a cost of $187,000.”
Compared to the almost $600 billion the U.S. spends on weapons for eternal war, refurbishing a school’s water system seems a minuscule amount. But there is no price one can place on a child whose IQ is lowered, whose behavior is forever altered and whose parents weren’t even told it was an issue. Sounds like business as usual, doesn’t it?