WASHINGTON — Congress might soon take action to help cities avoid another water lead poisoning crisis like the one in Flint, Michigan.
“We make certain promises to people in this country: clean water, safe food and clean air,” Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Mich.) told “So That Happened,” the HuffPost Politics podcast.
“We are now in the Senate — and we’ll be doing it in the House — passing funding and resources so that we can fix our water infrastructure in America,” Lawrence said.
Democrats originally pushed for $600 million of direct federal assistance to Flint, mostly for grants to help the beleaguered city of nearly 100,000 replace its lead pipes. Republicans resisted the proposal, with some tarring it as an “earmark” since it directed funds only to one community. The resulting bipartisan compromise would help any state — not just Michigan — access loans to deal with water emergencies and infrastructure upgrades.
Congress now has a big opportunity to do something about lead. People might be more aware of the problem of water lead than ever — 58 percent of Americans surveyed by HuffPost/YouGov in January said they had been following the Flint water crisis at least somewhat closely. A search of national polling archives suggests that, prior to Flint, little effort had been made to measure awareness of the problem.
Roughly 10 million American homes and buildings get water from service lines that are at least partly made of lead, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Federal law requires public water systems to treat the water so it won’t corrode pipes, but treatment mistakes in any locale with lead pipes could cause a Flint-style crisis.
“The one good thing that can come out of this is that more people can become cognizant of water lead as a source of exposure,” historian Werner Troesken said.
Troesken’s 2006 book The Great Lead Water Pipe Disaster details case studies of water lead poisoning dating to the 1800s, when many cities began using lead pipes for water distribution. A single glass of water in some towns at the turn of the century could contain as much lead as a black market abortion pill.
But lead poisoning symptoms can be so varied and subtle — causing not just miscarriages, but also such generic problems as high blood pressure and constipation — that doctors often struggled to recognize the source of their patients’ problems. Public health officials focused more on infectious diseases like cholera, and doctors who recognized the water lead problem had a hard time convincing the broader medical community.
Today, thanks partly to epidemiologists studying lead’s effects at the population level, lead is recognized as completely unsafe, especially for children, for whom it can cause permanent brain damage and behavioral problems. Epidemiologists regard lead paint and dust as the primary source of poisoning, but Troesken’s current research suggests children who grow up in cities with corrosive water supplies and lead pipes are basically less likely to succeed in life.
The approach nationally continues to be to leave the pipes in the ground, since digging them up would be expensive. And if water is treated with anti-corrosion chemicals, it can form a barrier that coats the interior of lead pipes and prevents lead particles from heading toward people’s faucets. Federal law requires public water departments to keep an eye on lead levels in water sampled from people’s homes to make sure the corrosion control is holding up. It’s a wishful strategy — the Flint water crisis showed a weakness in the regulation when Flint officials, apparently deliberately, sampled water from homes that didn’t have lead service lines, thereby masking the problem as it emerged.
The legislation crafted in the U.S. Senate doesn’t address the regulation, though it does encourage the EPA to step in and notify the public if local water authorities are dropping the ball. Instead, it provides $100 million to help states apply for subsidized loans in the event of a Flint-like emergency, and $70 million in credit subsidies for states to get loans to help pay for water infrastructure upgrades, such as replacing lead pipes.
“The media’s attention to Flint has put a spotlight on the crisis we face across the nation due to a failure to address aging water infrastructure,” Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) said in a statement this week.
Clean water advocacy groups think the bill is good, but not great. They prefer legislation introduced by Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) that would toughen monitoring of water lead levels and the regulations triggering lead pipe removal.
“The Senate aid package for Flint is an important start but not nearly enough to help the city deal with the immediate and long term health impacts of this crisis,” the League of Conservation Voters’ Madeleine Foote said in a statement about the plan for loan assistance. “There are many more Flints across the country, and we must make the commitment to seriously invest in our critical water infrastructure and finally address systemic injustices; all Americans deserve access to clean air and water.”
The Senate bill has been held up by a handful of Republicans, though Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), one of its chief architects, has said she’s optimistic the bill will get a vote next week.
The EPA is in the process of revising the Safe Drinking Water Act regulation that deals with the way public water systems respond to high lead levels. An agency working group recently made recommendations that a coalition of activists — including Dr. Marc Edwards, the Virginia Tech engineering professor who helped blow the whistle in Flint — have said won’t do enough to clamp down on shoddy water testing by utilities and to get rid of lead pipes across the country.
Paul Schwartz, a water policy expert at Water Alliance, welcomed the Senate bill but said lawmakers should be looking at current water regulations.
“They’re still at the margins of fixing the problem, but not really at the heart of what the major problems are in Flint and across the water utility systems in the United States,” Schwartz said.
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