Flint, Michigan’s water contamination crisis in 2014-2015 sparked global headlines, and rightly so. The city violated federal law and thousands of local residents were exposed to dangerous contaminants. Images of elderly citizens suffering from skin rashes and hair loss shocked the nation’s conscience
But it turns out that Flint was just the tip of a dirty, foul-smelling iceberg.
In fact, public water systems across America have been found to be contaminated with dangerous levels of lead, thanks to badly corroded pipes and a lack of environmental regulation, made worse by years of fiscal mismanagement by local authorities.
Some of the most notorious documented cases have included:
- In 2016, more than 50% of the public schools in Atlanta, GA showed elevated levels of lead in drinking water, some as high as 15 times the federal limit for water systems.
- In 2017, more than 10% of the homes in Newark, NJ had nearly twice the amount of lead in their drinking water that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers its threshold for taking action.
- In the wake of Katrina, nearly two-thirds of all homes in New Orleans, LA have been found to be contaminated with lead, according to a study conducted at Tulane University.
- In 2019, 71% of public schools in Texas were found to have lead in their drinking water. Some schools in Houston had lead levels registering at 6-30 times the acceptable federal limit.
The lead contamination crisis in Newark has deepened in recent months as federal and
local authorities continue to test the drinking water and find that lead contamination is higher than originally thought.
Authorities have begun warning residents not to drink tap water while emergency bottled water supplies are being stockpiled for distribution.
In fact, authorities now believe that more than 100 cities across New Jersey – with a total of 350,000 water service lines — may suffer from lead levels deemed unsafe to the public. The total affected population may reach as high as 5 million residents, officials say.
“Lead exposure is a serious health threat across the state,’’ says Chris Sturm, managing director of water and policy for New Jersey Future, a leading environmental non-profit. “These lead service lines have the potential to put everyone, particularly children and infants, at risk.”
A comprehensive analysis conducted by the news organization Reuters found thousands of U.S. Census tracts nationwide where the level of lead contamination exceeds the federal government’s “acceptable” limit.
These Census tracts are inhabited by specific pockets of residents, usually but not always ethnic minorities and the poor, the analysis revealed.
All told, Reuters found nearly 3,000 tracts with recently recorded lead poisoning rates at least double those found in Flint, MI during the peak of that city’s contamination crisis.
In fact, more than 1,100 of these communities had a rate of elevated blood tests at least four times higher than in Flint.
Health officials say short-term solutions are available if cities agree to institute new corrosion control measures, flush their current water lines and install chemical filters. Eventually, they’ll need to replace their lead service lines altogether.
But it takes money cities don’t have, and there isn’t much federal help available, either.
In 2016, Congress directed $170 million in aid to Flint alone. That’s 10 times the CDC’s
budget for assisting states with lead poisoning in an average year.
Another problem is that many states don’t actually require schools or other public facilities to take action to reduce unsafe lead levels once they’re detected. Some states like Texas have notoriously weak environmental regulations.
Reports of the spreading lead contamination crisis have disheartened public health specialists who note that the United States has made substantial progress in reducing lead contamination levels in recent decades.
Thanks to strict federal regulations dating to the 1970s that required all paint and gasoline products to be 100% lead-free, the nation has recorded a 80-90% decline in elevated lead levels among children, according to federal health statistics.
But getting lead out of existing water and sewer lines has posed a more daunting challenge, largely because of the costs involved.
Lead at any level is considered toxic to humans, and its effects cannot be reversed. Lead consumption can affect the heart, kidneys, and nerves. Children are especially vulnerable. Health effects include impaired cognition, behavioral disorders, hearing problems, and delayed puberty.
In a number of the most affected cities, residents have filed class-action lawsuits against state or local governments seeking damages for injuries due to lead poisoning.
In June 2018, the Natural Resources Defense Council filed a lawsuit against Newark alleging that the city had failed to provide clean water for its residents and misled them into thinking the water was safe. (The city is fighting the suit).
Not all lawsuits involve lead poisoning. In the city of Denmark, South Carolina, residents recently filed a class-action lawsuit after it was revealed that the city had added a toxic disinfectant to the water supply ten years ago without EPA approval.
Dozens of residents have complained about unexplained skin rashes and more serious kidney and bladder problems they believe resulted from years of daily chemical poisoning.