This op-ed originally appeared in The Sojourner’s Truth in Toledo, Ohio.
We have all seen or heard about the water crisis in Flint, Michigan: thousands of children and pregnant women have been exposed to lead poisoning after a series of questionable or, at best, very short-sighted decisions by various government entities caused lead to seep into their drinking water.
This is, pure and simple, the poisoning of a community. And it is mainly lower-income African-American children who are poisoned at higher rates than in predominantly white neighborhoods or suburbs and whose lives are in dire danger.
Recently, however, we are coming to learn that it is not just Flint and it is not just water. Consider what is happening right here in Ohio.
In Sebring, a small northeastern Ohio town of 4,300 in the Youngstown – Warren area, schools were closed three days in a row in February and pregnant women and children were advised not to drink the water after elevated levels of lead were found. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been asked to lead an investigation.
The Sebring crisis, itself, is not an isolated incident. In fact, across the entire state of Ohio between 2012 and 2015, 80 water systems serving more than 173,000 residents reported elevated levels of lead. Sebring was the fifth-largest system affected by higher-than-average lead levels; Canton, Ohio was the highest. Twelve of the 80 water systems served schools or day care centers.
And it’s not just an Ohio phenomenon.
A recent USA Today Network investigation revealed that almost 2,000 water systems spanning all 50 states have tested for excessive levels of lead contamination over the past four years. These water systems collectively supply water to six million Americans.
Furthermore, the source of public lead poisoning is not just confined to the water. 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.
Toledo has the second highest rate of lead poisoning in Ohio and in Cleveland, 14.2 percent of children have been exposed to poisonous lead – not in their water but rather in paint. The New York Times notes:
“The poisoning of Flint’s children outraged the nation. But too much lead in children’s blood has long been an everyday fact in Cleveland and scores of other cities — not because of bungled decisions about drinking water, but largely because a decades-long attack on lead in household paint has faltered. It is a tragic reminder that one of the great public health crusades of the 20th century remains unfinished.”
More than 3,400 children in Toledo suffer from lead poisoning, the Kirwin Institute of the Ohio State University reports, “resulting in damage to brain development, loss of IQ points, shortened attention span, and disruptive behavior.” These effects are also permanent, according to the Toledo Lead Poisoning Prevention Coalitions, leading to staggering societal costs including special education needs, incarceration, personal and financial losses of crime victims, and lost opportunities for children to be successful.
For four decades now, we have known of the dangers of lead poisoning, particularly where our children are concerned. Even small amounts of lead have a pernicious impact on young brains, stunting intellectual growth and affecting cardiovascular, immune and hormone systems.
So what must we do?
This is a time of extreme peril and not a time for smiles and passivity.
The Senate has a bipartisan measure pending called the Drinking Water Safety and Infrastructure Act. It would provide $242 million in seed money not just for Flint, but also for other communities with water contamination, including communities in Ohio. Both of Ohio’s senators, Rob Portman and Sherrod Brown, are co-sponsors of the legislation. We should contact them to ask them to prod Senate leadership to bring this measure up for an immediate vote.
Also, Mayor Paula Hicks Hudson and the Toledo City Council are urged to put our children first by approving the prevention ordinance sponsored by the Toledo Lead Poisoning Prevention Coalition.
These steps are a start, but we need more to fix our infrastructure and heal our children.
It’s not just Flint and it’s not just water. The lives of our children are in jeopardy and it affects us all. We need to demand that we put a stop to the poisoning of our children.
Contact Rev. Donald Perryman, D.Min, at firstname.lastname@example.org