Was Flint Just the Beginning of a National Health Crisis?

Flint has made countless headlines for its lead problem, but the city could be a canary in the coal mine for nationwide contamination.
Was Flint Just the Beginning of a National Health Crisis?

Since the Flint water crisis came to light in the spring of 2014, concerns over elevated lead levels in drinking water have been on the rise nationwide. Investigative reporters from Reuters and USA Today recently analyzed data from state health departments, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), identifying thousands of communities and water systems with lead contamination issues.

Reuters submitted records requests to the CDC and health departments in all 50 states seeking children’s blood-test results. Reporters heard back from 21 states and analyzed those figures at the neighborhood level.

The reporters found nearly 3,000 locales with lead poisoning rates double those of Flint in 2014. Among those, 1,100 had rates four times higher or more.

With imbalances in testing rates among the states and other discrepancies in the data, Reuters faced challenges compiling the results. Reporters included only areas where at least 100 children were tested over the course of some years, and they combined data over an 11-year period to avoid single-year abnormalities.

Because Reuters analyzed blood-test data, the lead poisoning they found likely came from a variety of sources, including lead paint, industrial waste and old plumbing.

The USA Today study focused on water systems. Using recent EPA data from water tap tests, the paper reported 600 systems with lead levels exceeding 40 ppb — a threshold the EPA had previously labeled online as an “imminent health threat for pregnant women and children,” according to USA Today.

Robert Walker, co-chairman of the CDC’s Lead Content Work Group, told Reuters that the new findings could help health officials get grants for some of the areas most affected by lead poisoning. “I hope this data spurs questions from the public to community leaders who can make changes,” Walker told Reuters. “I would think that it would turn some heads.”

Reuters journalist Michael Pell recently spoke to Alex Cohen of KPCC radio in California about the study.

“We found kids in states across the country that had high lead levels,” Pell told KPCC. “They were in places that you might expect or think about when you think about lead — like Cleveland and Baltimore and Philadelphia. But when we took a look at the data on a granular level, even people that work with this problem said, ‘Mike, we knew that Cleveland had a problem with elevated lead problems in kids, but I didn’t realize exactly where it was. And we didn’t know how bad it was throughout the state.’”

Meanwhile, USA Today pointed out that inconsistencies in testing protocols suggest the problem could be more widespread than the EPA’s data indicates. “People in thousands more communities served by water systems that have been deemed in compliance with the EPA’s lead rules have no assurance their drinking water is safe from the brain-damaging toxin,” the report stated.

While these reports and other localized findings point to lead problems in certain regions, the solution remains unclear. After years of headlines and advocacy work from Congressman Dan Kildee of Michigan, Flint saw the U.S. Congress allocate $170 million to replace lead lines, expand health care and improve infrastructure in the city. But the CDC has nowhere near that much money set aside to help states with lead poisoning. Check in with TPOMag.com in the coming months for new developments.


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