#71Series: Years After Flint Water Crisis, Lead in Drinking Water Remains a National Problem

The Flint Water Crisis put the issue of lead in drinking water in the national spotlight, but the problem isn’t unique to Flint.

This piece kicks off CCIJ’s new “71%” series. It puts past reports and investigations by CCIJ members in a national and global context, providing insights from journalists, public health experts and activists around the globe. It poses the question: If 71% of our planet is covered in water, why are so many people living without it? Read more from the series here.

Whether it’s found in water, paint, soil or a myriad of other sources, “all lead is bad,” said Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician in Flint, Michigan, whose research exposed the Flint water crisis in 2014

Flint’s crisis put the issue of lead in drinking water in the national spotlight, spurring many cities and a few states to finally face their own lead problems. In December of 2019, CCIJ member and WBEZ reporter Monica Eng published a story on Midwestern cities trying to do just that.   

Published in collaboration with CCIJ and the Solutions Journalism Network, the piece explored why Chicago hasn’t replaced lead service lines that serve about 80 percent of Chicago homes and looked for answers Gary, Indiana; Cincinnati, Ohio; and Detroit, Michigan-cities which were actually getting the job done. 

The problem, however, isn’t unique to Chicago or Flint. A 2019 report from Environment America, a national network of environmental groups in 29 states, showed elevated lead levels in the water systems of schools across the country. John Rumpler, Environment America’s Clean Water Program Director, said a closer focus needs to be put on schools because of lead’s adverse health effects for young children. 

“There’s no safe level of lead, according to most health authorities,” Rumpler said. “We know that even at low levels, lead can have really serious impacts on the way our kids think, learn, behave and develop.” 

That’s why Hanna-Attisha started her research in the first place. “(Lead) really alters the entire life course trajectory of a child,” she said. 

Only half of states require that schools test their water supply for lead. School districts that have tested, though, often report contamination. Rumpler said that’s not surprising. 

Even after lead pipes were officially outlawed in 1986, brass fixtures were allowed to carry some amounts of lead until 2014. “I would say there is a strong likelihood that there is lead contamination, or at least a clear risk of lead contamination for all schools that were built before 2014,” he said.

That means that, rather than being concentrated in large cities, lead in water is an extensive problem. In California, the state legislature passed a law in 2017 mandating schools to test portions of their water supply for lead. After the deadline for that testing had passed, the non-profit California Public Interest Research Group (CALPIRG) assembled an interactive map with data from all reporting schools.

Claudia Deeg, a public health associate at CALPIRG, said the map is a way to help teachers, parents and other school stakeholders understand the gravity of the situation. 

“Unfortunately, we’ve seen widespread lead contamination through the entire state from urban, suburban and rural areas,” she said of their findings, which indicate that 53% of all reporting schools in California have lead in their water.

A new report from UNICEF estimated that one in three children globally have been exposed to some source of lead. Lead in water largely impacts U.S. cities, they found, pointing to a 2016 investigation from Reuters that revealed thousands of U.S. locales with higher lead levels than Flint. 

Research shows that lead in drinking water causes problems for all age groups.  Many health officials and water rights activists argue that to continue to allow Americans to drink contaminated or potentially contaminated water is dangerous.

“It’s hard to imagine much quality of life or much sustainable life on the planet, human or otherwise, without clean water,” Rumpler said, calling the issue of lead in drinking water a “self-inflicted wound” due to decades of allowing the neurotoxin to live in sources from which we get water. 

Hanna-Attisha said that what’s happening in Chicago is especially egregious since the city stopped mandating the use of lead service lines only in the mid-1980s, and now makes residents pay to remove lead pipes themselves. She called it an act of environmental racism because wealthy, majority white neighborhoods are able to afford to fix their water, while poorer communities of color cannot. 

Eng of WBEZ said that’s why she thinks it’s important to report on the issue in Chicago. “We have more lead service lines than any other city, and all the mayors have tried to sweep it under the rug,” she said. “The risk is that everyone, but (especially) the most vulnerable, will suffer from more unnecessary health damage from lead exposure.” 

For children in low income schools or low income areas, Hanna-Attisha said exposure to lead in water can be more widespread and less likely to be quickly remediated, or in many cases, even acknowledged

“The burden, like most public health and justices, does not fall equally on our nation’s children,” she said. “Kids who already have all these other adversities and toxicities to life have higher lead exposures to start with, so there’s this unfair burden that widens other inequities.” 

The fight for lead-free drinking water will likely go on for decades to come. Removing lead pipes can be expensive, although some research has found that removing leaded water service lines could save billions in the long run. The challenge is persuading governments to fund the solutions in the short term.

Rumpler said he’s excited to see more state and federal interest in remediating lead service lines, but there’s much more work to do.

“I don’t think I’ll ever say enough is being done until all lead service lines are removed and we’ve replaced the faucets and fountains at schools around the country with truly lead free materials and put (lead removing) filters on,” he said.