June 6, 2019 | Vol. 6 No. 13
While Congress banned lead in plumbing systems 33 years ago and the United States, as a whole, has made important investments in reducing overall lead exposure, federal efforts have stopped short of pursuing an aggressive and comprehensive plan to remediate the millions of affected water pipes.
— Areeba Ahider and Rejane Frederick
Four years ago this week, the first of 79 lawsuits was filed against the State of Michigan, claiming the water from the Flint River posed a significant health risk to the approximately 100,000 residents of Flint, Michigan. By then, nearly 14 months had passed since the state switched the city’s water supply from both Lake Huron and the Detroit River to the Flint, which in turn exposed as many as 12,000 children to unsafe levels of lead.
In addition to thousands of cases of lead poisoning, there have been at least 12 confirmed deaths from Legionnaire’s disease. Today, in spite of claims by government officials that the water in Flint is safe to drink, many city residents continue to express doubt. According to The Flint Journal, as of April 2019, there are still as many as 2,500 water service lines that need to be replaced.
Although Flint has become synonymous with this issue, a recent investigation from the news organization Reuters reveals that there are another 3,000 U.S. communities that have rates of lead poisoning that are either on par or worse than Flint’s.
Take, for example, South Bend, Indiana, which lies roughly 200 miles to the southwest of Flint just across the Indiana-Michigan border. Nearly identical to Flint in population size and with a similar industrial past, South Bend has a serious lead problem.
In Census Tract 6, one-third of all children tested in the past decade exhibited blood lead levels (BLL) above the federal threshold. It should come as no surprise that over 70 percent of the residents in this community are people of color and more than 40 percent live below the poverty line. Moreover, 60 percent of all children in Census Tract 6 are poor.
Then there are neighborhoods in cities such as Baltimore, Buffalo, Cleveland, Milwaukee and Philadelphia. In some of the most economically depressed areas of Cleveland, elevated BLL’s among children are 10 times higher than in Flint. In fact, in some of these places the rate of elevated tests during the past 10 years or so have risen to around 50 percent.
This is just small sampling of the areas where lead poisoning is an epidemic. It should also be noted that this issue is not confined to urban America, as rural communities and reservations are subject to this ongoing public health crisis.
And, as this investigation notes, unsafe water is not the only culprit. “Like Flint,” write journalists M.B. Pell and Joshua Schneyer of Reuters, “many of these localities are plagued by legacy lead: crumbling paint, plumbing, or industrial waste left behind. Unlike Flint, many have received little attention or funding to combat poisoning.”
Here in the Twin Cities, elevated BLL’s among children are generally low when compared to other major metropolitan areas. Still, children demonstrating elevated levels of lead (between five and 10 percent of those tested) are concentrated in low-income areas and communities of color. And while lead may not be as significant a problem here as elsewhere, environmental racism and classism still plague the metro.
According to the Minneapolis-based Center for Earth Energy and Democracy (CEED), low-income and minority neighborhoods in the Twin Cities are significantly more likely to live within a quarter-mile of a highway; in an area with a much higher than normal respiratory hazard index; near industrial land use sites; and in proximity to other contaminated sites as designated by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA).
So the verdict seems clear; there are a myriad of environmental calamities that continue to harm people here in Minnesota and across the nation. That said, since certain communities are disproportionately impacted by these issues, the effort to solve such problems remains dawdling if not outright non-existent.
That is, of course, until a crisis like Flint makes the national news. And still, the response might be leisurely at best.
Peraps authors Areeba Ahider and Rejane Frederick have summed it up best. Writing on behalf of Talk Poverty, they conclude that:
“Five years after Flint entered the national consciousness, the perpetrators of this man-made crisis continue to go unseen and unscathed. And Flint is just the beginning. Because of bad corporate actors, derelict landlords, and governmental neglect and mismanagement at all levels, our nation’s infrastructure has become toxic and dilapidated, in need of more than $2 trillion worth of investments and 21st century policies that prioritize the most affected and proactive prevention rather than costly yet reactionary and incremental approaches that favor wealthy enclaves.”