Some People’s Water Crises Are More Urgent Than Others

October 3, 2016

A public epidemic has become public knowledge, thanks, in a manner of speaking, to egregious negligence by Michigan state and local Flint officials.

We’ve learned that millions of children are at risk of lead poisoning — or already have it. Undoubtedly adults too. And they can suffer a wide range of harms. But such research as we have focuses on young children because they’re at highest risk for lifelong damages.

So what then have our federal policymakers done since all this became common knowledge?

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has taken a first step toward strengthening protections against the most common sources of lead poisoning — old house paint and the soil around housing.

But I’ll defer that and focus here on water because it’s been made newly newsworthy by a cliffhanger we may see again.

The administration sent water, filters, funds and folks to Flint shortly after Michigan’s governor declared a state of emergency. But there are still reportedly problems with the water there. And they’ll cost many millions of dollars to fix.

Flint is hardly the only community with lead in the water that comes out of faucets in homes and schools. And, as with Flint, dumping some chemicals into the water supply won’t solve the problem. Lead pipes corrode and have to be replaced.

USA Today reports nearly 2,000 other water systems with higher lead levels than the maximum the Environmental Protection Agency has set as a trigger for action. They’re in all 50 states, it says.

In the District of Columbia too, it seems, though our big lead-in-the-water crisis supposedly ended in 2005 — not, however, because the District no longer has lead pipes. And not apparently because the chemicals added to the water protect us.

The agency responsible for public buildings recently found that over half the public school water systems it tested had lead levels higher than the EPA trigger.

That’s three times higher than what the Centers for Disease Control now says should trigger public health actions. So we’ve had a child health emergency for some time.

The Senate recently approved $220 million to address leaded water problems — this by an overwhelming majority. About $100 million would go to states with drinking water emergencies.

They’d get an additional $70 million to subsidize (not by much) loans for related infrastructure projects. Another $50 million would be divvied up among small, economically disadvantaged communities to help them comply with existing drinking water standards.

This much is fully offset in the much larger water resources development bill. The substantial investments needed to remedy water infrastructure problems would hinge on the outcomes of the annual budget process.

Leading Senate Democrats wanted the paid-for piece included in the continuing resolution needed to prevent a government shutdown. The Republican leadership would have none of it, though it included more than twice as much to aid recently-flooded communities, mainly in Louisiana.

A stalemate then because not enough Democrats would agree to vote on the CR unless it did something about both water crises. And the House couldn’t pass a CR without Democrats because too many Republicans there object to such a short-term stopgap.

A compromise forged by the House Speaker and Democratic Minority Leader averted this different sort of crisis. Seems that impending government shutdowns, like hangings, concentrate the mind wonderfully.

Basically, they agreed to amend the House version of the water resources bill. It had no funds for Flint or any other community whose residents, the youngest especially, are at risk of lead poisoning.

The amended bill, also passed by a large majority, would add $170 million. So there may be some money in the pipeline for some communities with lead in their water pipelines in the upcoming year.

But the $50 million difference in emergency spending is only one of many differences between the House and Senate bills. So negotiators will have a lot of work to do. And whatever they come up with will, of course, have to pass in both the House and Senate.

No such delay or doubts for the flooded communities, however, because their half million is in the CR. Some people’s water crises are more urgent than others.

Now, if lead-laden water had been flowing into members’ own homes — or out of the drinking fountains in their children’s schools ….


Finding a Teachable Moment in the Flint Water Crisis

March 14, 2016

We’ve all read about the lead-laden water in Flint, Michigan. Flint is far from the only community where tests have found alarmingly high numbers of children with alarmingly high levels of lead in their blood. And water isn’t the only source — not even the most common.

Flint has prompted a spate of news reports and op-eds on toxic lead exposure, as you’ve probably noted. It’s also prompted federal-level initiatives to ramp up prevention. I’ll defer these to a separate post and deal here with the basics — many new to me and perhaps to some of you also.

Harms Excessive Lead Levels Do

When lead gets into our bodies, they distribute it to organs like our livers, kidneys and brains. They confuse it with essential nutrients and try to use it, instead of them to build and repair bones, muscles and brain connections.

Damages to young children are especially severe. This is partly because their bodies absorb relatively more lead. And it’s more likely to get into their bodies, especially if they live in homes where the paint on the walls and/or woodwork is still lead-based.

You know how babies are. They crawl around on the floor, which may have paint dust or flecks on it. They put their hands in their mouths. They chew on things — and can reach more things to chew on as they learn to toddle.

Those first few years are when the brain does much of its development work, making connections among cells at an extraordinarily high rate.

This, if I understand correctly, is why lead in the body then can result in a range of irreversible damages, e.g., learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder, difficulties coordinating so-called small motor actions like picking up something with a finger and a thumb.

For somewhat similar reasons, babies may be born with damaged brains if their mothers have lead in their systems — or dead because their mothers miscarry.

Flint Children Just the Tip of the Iceberg

In one respect, the Flint crisis is as particular as the decisions that led to it. In another, it’s one case among many that haven’t gotten the popular media attention they deserve. Nor the rush to remedy — even belatedly, as in Michigan.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof cites two communities, a state and a large part of a second where tests have found higher percents of children with dangerously high levels of lead in their blood.

The Detroit News fills in with more communities in Michigan. A reporter, also for the Times, adds Cleveland and several other cities. Vox reports 18 in Pennsylvania where a higher percent of children tested in the danger range than in Flint.

All told, well over half a million young children have blood lead levels higher than the maximum the Centers for Disease Control uses for its risk analyses, according to the Center’s (somewhat dated) estimate.

Where the Lead Comes From

Flint isn’t the only community where corrosion in publicly-owned water pipes has released lead into tap water. Some fellow District of Columbia residents will recall our own lead-infused water crisis.

The most common sources of lead poisoning in children, however, are lead-based paint in their homes and soil that’s got flakes of lead-based exterior paint in it and/or deposits of lead that was in the exhaust emitted by cars and trucks before Congress mandated a gradual phase-out of leaded gasoline.

Not an Equal Opportunity Risk

Flint is an extraordinarily poor community, with a poverty rate of 40%, according to the latest Census survey. The rate soars to nearly 71% for children under five, the highest-risk age group. The community is also predominantly black — not unrelated, one assumes, to the poverty rates.

The poverty rate in Cleveland, also predominantly black, is barely lower — and the rate for children under five somewhat over 64%. More than 17% of the young children tested there (most weren’t) had blood lead levels over the CDC high-risk threshold. Recent tests found a 26.5% toxic rate in one poor part of the city.

CDC has found high blood lead levels in relatively more black children nationwide. It (indirectly) attributes this to older housing and poverty.

But it’s not the age of the house that matters. It’s whether the house was repainted since 1978, when a federal rule banned lead in house paint — and whether the new paint still completely masks the old, if it was. Whether it’s always masked the old matters too.

Fair to assume that poor families are more likely to live in poorly-maintained buildings — and in buildings closer to highways, bus terminals and the like, which were sources of lead that’s still in the soil.

What About Race in the Place

Experts interviewed by Cleveland Plain Dealer reporters attribute the persistent risks to racism. On the one hand, red-lining policies concentrated blacks in neighborhoods then neglected, they say.

On the other hand, evidence of lead poisoning in children was shrugged off or blamed on the kids and their parents. Sound familiar? That may be history now. But Cleveland’s failures to investigate and require remedies isn’t — and not only due to funding shortages, it seems.

Congressman Dan Kildee, who represents Flint, says that race was “the single greatest determinant” of what happened there, referring, it seems, to how the governor and his people discounted residents’ complaints.

Huffington Post reporters go further, citing the waste auto factories dumped into the Flint River as one, but not the only example of environmental racism. It’s nevertheless hard to pinpoint racism when poverty seems a factor too.

“It’s not just about black lives mattering,” says a sociologist who studies impoverished communities. “Poor people’s lives don’t matter.” The water crisis, he adds, “just made everybody notice” what had been going on for a long time.

Perhaps the crisis will prove “a teachable moment for America,” as a former CDC director says. A lot of lessons for state and local officials. Some for Congress and at least one federal agency too.

Of which more shortly.