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Why America’s Lead Problem Is So Much Bigger Than Just Flint

There’s not enough money or political will to fix our country’s aging pipes.

By Jared Keller


(Photo: Sarah Rice/Getty Images)

Back in January of 2016, before the presidential election reached its fever pitch, Virginia Tech environmental engineer Marc Edwards issued a worrying assessment of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. Edwards, who in 2004 had helped to expose poisonous corrosion in Washington, D.C.’s aging infrastructure, this time publicly examined the alarmingly high concentrations of toxic lead in Flint’s pipes.

The Flint government had started drawing water from the Flint River in 2014 in an effort to alleviate the former manufacturing hub’s ongoing economic decline, but city and state officials had ignored complaints of “rashes and strange odors” from taxpayers for months. On January 16th, President Barack Obamadeclared a federal state of emergency in response to Flint’s water crisis. “I’m horrified. I’m unsurprised,” Edwards told NBC News following Obama’s declaration. “We could see this coming.”

Almost a year later, it seems Edwards was on to something: For thousands of American citizens, Flint’s water crisis is a disconcertingly common experience. A new investigation of neighborhood-level blood testing data gathered by state and federal health departments (including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) revealed nearly 3,000 communities with lead poisoning levels “at least double” those in Flint; some 1,100 of those reported levels “at least four times higher.” Reuters notes that poverty is a “potent predictor” to lead poisoning. In urban areas like Philadelphia and Cleveland, nearly half of the children surveyed consistently tested positive for lead poisoning over a decade. But the data also reveals a universality in socioeconomic class: The victims “span the American spectrum — poor and rich, rural and urban, black and white.”

The data, which spans five- and 10-year intervals, confirms that the United States’ public infrastructure has been headed for a reckoning for years. Forget the minor inconvenience of century-old pipes that account for some 240,000 water main breaks each year: As I noted last year, a 2015 report from the American Water Works Association found that “up to 96 million Americans could be found to be drinking water with unsafe levels of lead.”

A few years earlier, a New York Timesanalysis of federal data revealed that nearly 20 percent of local water treatment systems violated “key provisions” of the Safe Drinking Water Act between 2004 and 2009, and more than 49 million people consumed water that contained “illegal concentrations of chemicals like arsenic or radioactive substances like uranium, as well as dangerous bacteria often found in sewage.”

More importantly, the data underscores just how widespread the breakdown of water infrastructure has become. The Reuters analysis on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood level reveals thousands of communities spread across 21 states from the Allegheny River to the Gulf of Mexico — home to nearly 61 percent of Americans. In some 2,606 census tracts, Reuters recorded lead poisoning rates that were at least double those in Flint; as the news agency put it, the Michigan community that sparked a national uproar “doesn’t even rank among the most dangerous lead hotspots in America.”

But if the ongoing Flint saga is any indication, perhaps the most alarming aspect of the national water crisis is how it was hidden from the American public. Shortly after Obama declared a state of emergency, the Guardian reported that U.S. officials “systematically distort[ed] water tests” in “every major U.S. city east of the Mississippi” by utilizing a controversial lead testing method to obscure the presence of heavy metals and other toxic elements in public drinking water. After Flint captured national attention in 2015, investigations revealed that both state and federal agents from the Environmental Protection Agency not only failed to alert the general public to potential health risks, but deliberately delayed their immediate response to the crisis.

It’s no wonder the Flint package passed in Congress included the requirement that state and federal EPA officials alert the public of dangerous levels of lead in drinking water — or that more criminal charges are coming for Michigan officials who endangered the public during the course of the Flint investigation. But these twin measures to ensure accountability and responsibility still don’t bode well for future water crises: While Congress approved $170 million in aid for Flint in December, that amount comes to “10 times the CDC’s budget for assisting states with lead poisoning this year,” per Reuters. There’s no money or will to fix this problem, and it’s only going to get worse.

Which brings us back to Marc Edwards’ terrifyingly accurate year-old prediction. Edwards knows all about bureaucratic wrongdoing: He spent six years fighting the CDC to admit it lied to the public about the water crisis in Washington, D.C. He recognized that the enemy of the public is not just corroded pipes and aging sewers, but a dangerous culture of malfeasance and dishonesty among those who are supposed to keep the public safe.

“Unfortunately, this is human nature,” he explained last year. ”If you make a mistake, it starts easily. If you think you can get away with it, you can wake up some day and you didn’t intend to go down this path, but you poison an entire city.”

Edwards didn’t know how right he was. If Flint is any indication, the Reuters analysis suggests that thousands of communities are being betrayed not by their infrastructure, but by public officials.