Flint and Beyond
Lana, a single mother with three children, discovered that her one-year old twins tested positive for lead poisoning, and left her contaminated Holyoke, MA apartment, becoming homeless for three months. She got help from a local program, and eventually got a job and some economic stability. But for one of her twins, the damage was done: As he grew older, he needed special education, and had problems with speech and memory from the brain damage caused by the lead poisoning.
I know about this because I worked at the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) when Lana’s family’s story was recounted in Poverty Matters, a 1997 CDF publication authored by valued colleague Arloc Sherman. Arloc picked up the story when Lana’s son was 13; he was first diagnosed as lead-poisoned in 1982. Lana knew the dangers then; that’s why she moved out despite the prospect of homelessness. And by 1997, Poverty Matters could cite many studies showing that lead-poisoned children were seven times more likely to drop out of high school, had lower IQ and vocabulary scores, and stood a greater chance of hyperactivity, delinquency, and, later, crime. Lost lifetime earnings among poor children with lead poisoning at that time added up to $492 million. That was then. By 2006, estimates of lost lifetime earnings based on the number of lead-poisoned children under age six had soared to $165 – $233 billion.
So – we’ve known at least some of the human and economic cost of lead poisoning for a long time. We do know now that lead is a more dangerous poison than we first thought; in fact, the Centers for Disease Control says there is no safe level of lead in a child’s bloodstream.
That’s why it is maddening that this problem has not been solved, 34 years after Lana’s baby was poisoned. Lead was banned in paint in 1978. But it still exists on walls in dwellings across the country. We know it can leach into drinking water from lead pipes, but a recent USA TODAY Network investigative report identified 2,000 water systems spanning all 50 states with excessive levels of lead contamination. These systems supply water to six million Americans.
And of course there’s Flint, Michigan. Recently, in a hearing before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, state and federal officials pointed fingers at each other over who is responsible for Flint. To be sure, there is plenty of blame to go around. But, although assessing responsibility is important, I watched and thought of a burning building. When it’s burning, the fire department saves the trapped people and puts out the fire. When everyone is safe, they investigate and assess blame. Congress ought to take a page from the firefighters’ playbook and make sure everyone is safe first.
But they haven’t.
The Senate had bipartisan support for the proposed $242 million Drinking Water Safety and Infrastructure Act. It was hoped they could work out a deal that would have tied action on an energy bill to action for Flint and other communities with water contamination. They didn’t, and went home for an Easter recess period. The Senate is due back on April 5; the House will be back April 12.
While Congress is away, most people in Flint still cannot drink their tap water. Yes – some progress has been made. They have switched back to a safer water source. Delivery systems for bottled water are apparently working better, and effective filters are being distributed. The federal government has done important things to help, such as extending Medicaid to serve an additional 15,000 children and pregnant women who have been exposed to the lead-contaminated water and expanding Head Start to serve more young children in Flint. The Obama Administration has done much in addition to this, including providing immediate access to an $80 million water infrastructure revolving loan fund for Michigan, deploying a contingent of public health workers, and nutrition assistance through WIC and a fresh fruits and vegetables program.
But there is much more to do, and Congress has to appropriate funds to make substantial progress in reducing the lead risk. (Yes – states have to do their part, too.) In Flint alone, estimates of what it will take to replace all of the contaminated pipes run as high as $1.5 billion (note that some estimates are much lower). Hundreds of millions more will be needed to address future health problems for the thousands of children who have been poisoned – and as any health practitioner knows, failure to act now will mean much greater costs down the road. So the $242 million in the Senate bill is not enough, but the $0.00 appropriated so far by Congress this year is shameful.
In addition, health experts and public housing advocates warn that 1.6 million households with children nationwide are at risk of exposure to lead-contaminated paint, a source of lead poisoning far more prevalent than water contamination.
And of the potentially millions of children who have been exposed to lead-contaminated paint in affordable housing units, the future costs are even more exorbitant. Writing in a New York Times op-ed, Emily Benfer, a clinical professor of law and the director of the Health Justice Project at the Loyola University Chicago School of Law, lays out the potential cost:
“If we do not commit to solving this problem, we will continue to accrue the staggering costs associated with lead poisoning: up to $53 billion in medical care, $233 billion in lost lifetime earnings, $35 billion in lost tax revenue and $146 million in special education expenses, as well as $1.7 billion in direct costs of increased crime associated with higher levels of lead in a community.”
Especially shameful is that public housing across the country is a source of lead poisoning. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development must do a better job of inspecting properties it will use taxpayer dollars to subsidize, requiring lead to be removed, and protecting children by emergency relocations of families if children are poisoned. HUD is considering such changes, and Senators Dirksen and Menendez and Representatives Ellison and 14 others have introduced the Lead Safe Housing for Kids Act to require HUD to act.
It’s not just Flint, and it’s not just water. But it is a real emergency – more, not less so because we have failed to act for so long. Members of Congress like to talk about securing the future for our children and grandchildren. Instead, Congress has foreclosed opportunity for many thousands of children because of its irresponsible failure to protect them from poison. Congress needs to come back and ensure that all children now threatened by such toxic inaction have the protection and services they need.