running water

Photo: Steven Johnson (Flickr.com, CC)

The recent Congressional hearing on the crisis in Flint, Michigan made headlines for the scathing partisanship but it was also substantive and illuminating. Days later, a report commissioned by Michigan’s Governor, Rick Snyder, laid the majority of the blame at his own feet (as reported in The Hill), though it confirmed that EPA also bears some fault. The first order of business, clearly, is making amends in Flint, providing safe water and the needed health interventions for the city’s children. But it should also be clear that the entire nation has unfinished business with lead.

Lead policy has often been cited as a public health success story. High blood lead levels were once widespread. Congress intervened to ban lead in residential paint, the gasoline used in cars, and in new water service lines and plumbing fixtures. Levels began a long, steady drop (in the general population) as measured by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As levels dropped, the medical understanding of lead increased. Doctors saw that lead impaired brain function at much lower doses than previously thought. We now know that there is no “safe level” of lead and health authorities have steadily lowered the “action level” seen as requiring intervention.

Lead is therefore often seen as a “legacy” environmental issue – meaning it is about past economic activity. That view is true up to a point. The biggest sources tend to be old pipes and old paint in old housing. Soil contamination in industrial areas also plays a role. Remediating all of these sources is a matter of resources rather than know-how. This country has the resources.

But lead is not entirely a legacy issue. Active commercial uses include “industrial paints and coatings” – a broad category that includes cars, boats, and civil engineering. The gasoline used in smaller propeller-driven airplanes has lead, exposing people near small airports. Lead wheel weights are used in some trucks, often falling off and eventually breaking down into dust. Lead has also been found in vinyl school supplies, garden hoses, and children’s lunchboxes. It has even been found in food, most recently in several brands of chocolate. Current commercial uses of lead do indeed continue, and will be the legacy exposures of the future.

Here’s what can be done. Congress can make the biggest difference because it controls federal spending.

  1. The legislation providing emergency funds to address the Flint crisis should be passed right away. But it should not stop there.
  2. Senator Cardin and Representative Tonko have introduced bills to replenish the federal drinking water “revolving fund” – which provides resources for communities to upgrade or remediate old pipes.
  3. Legislation has also been introduced to provide tax credits for private plumbing and paint remediation, to change outdated policies at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) that result in child lead poisoning for children participating in HUD programs, and to test school drinking water fountains.

Also, the Obama Administration can grab the bull by the horns and take some of the needed action on its own. EPA should move up the timeline for tackling current commercial uses of lead under its chemical “Work Plan” program and expedite revisions to the ‘lead and copper rule.’ Instead of waiting for legislation, HUD should act on the recent petition organized by the Health Justice Project of Loyola Chicago Law School and Sargent Shriver Center which calls for an end to several policies. For example, we should be more proactive rather than waiting until children are often officially poisoned ­above action levels ­­ before remediation is required. And we should make it easier for children to move from contaminated public housing. Finally, Health and Human Services should do more to ensure states comply with Medicaid’s requirement to screen children for lead.

All of the attention to the Flint tragedy should result first and foremost in justice and concrete aid for Flint, but it should also serve as a wake-up call that America has unfinished business with lead.