By Elke Weesjes
(L) Dutch Boy Paint © Thester11, (M) Tetraethyl Lead © David Brodbeck, (R) Lead Pipe © KBreker
The issue of lead poisoning has long weighed heavily on public health experts. Although the harmful effects of lead exposure—which range from declined mental functions in adults to severe developmental delays in children—has been known for centuries, it wasn’t until the 1970s that the United States made headway in stanching the amount allowed in household products such as paint or gasoline.
While that achievement resulted in what was widely regarded as a milestone victory, the problem has been far from eliminated. In fact, as the recent crisis in Flint, Michigan has shown, there are still plenty of lead hazards to be concerned about, and they don’t just lie in aging paint.
An estimated 37.1 million U.S. homes have lead-based paint somewhere in the building, according to a 2011 survey by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. That includes an estimated 3.6 million homes where children under six are exposed to at least one lead-based paint hazard, as well as 1.1 million low-income households.
While paint and dust are the most common sources of the toxins, water has been a primary—yet under researched—source of exposure.
Lead in water is an “underappreciated source of lead intake,” Bruce Lanphear, a pediatric epidemiologist who has published several studies on lead exposure on intellectual functioning in children, said in an article in Environmental Health Perspectives.
This has gotten greater attention since the incident in Flint, where a budget cutting decision to switch drinking water sources exposed as many as 8,000 children under the age of six to dangerous levels of lead. Similarly toxic instances of water contamination have been making the national headlines as well, suggesting that the conditions in Flint were neither recent nor exceptional.
Cases were reported in Washington, D.C., in 2004, in Columbia, South Carolina, in 2005, and in Durham and Greenville, North Carolina, in 2006—just to name a few. In the past year alone, aside from Flint, there have been reports of lead-contaminated water in Jackson, Mississippi, Newark, New Jersey, and a cluster of villages in Ohio.
The root of the water-based lead problem lies in the nation’s aging water infrastructure. Congress banned lead water pipes in 1986, however an estimated six to ten million old water pipes, prone to leaching lead into tap water without corrosion control, are still in use.
“We need an aggressive program to get rid of lead service lines, starting with an inventory so we know where they are,” Lynn Thorp, the national campaigns director for Clean Water Action, told the New York Times.
Getting rid of the decaying lines, however, comes with a hefty price tag. According Fitch Ratings, they could cost up to $50 billion to replace. Of course, it’s very unlikely that the funds to take on such a project would be available. Even after the uproar in Flint, there are little resources to install all-copper lines. Other, equally poor cities without media attention would have even less opportunity to raise money and awareness.
In fact, even in the wake of the awareness raised by Flint, established programs are suffering from budget cuts. Since 2012, Congress has allocated less money for CDC lead poisoning prevention funding. As a result a total of 35 state health departments responsible for addressing lead poisoning lost CDC funding. Although some states managed to find alternative funds to keep programs going, other programs were shut down.
The HUD Healthy Homes Lead Poisoning Prevention Program has seen a similar decrease in funds. It currently provides about $120 million per year to states for home lead removal, but this amount is “not nearly enough for training of contractors nationwide to identify problem properties and safely remove lead,” Deborah Cory-Slechta, of the Advisory Committee on Childhood Lead Poisoning, told Medscape (subscription may be required).
In other words, states are not given the support needed to eliminate lead exposure.
“We know how to fix it,” David Jacobs, a chief contributor to the task force who ran the federal lead program from 1995 to 2004 told the New York Times. “The technology is there. It’s just a matter of political will to properly appropriate the money.”