Lead was great stuff; it used to be in paint (for color and durability) and in gasoline (to keep engines from knocking) and lead plumbing was leak-resistant, malleable and would last forever. As they used to say, it was a lead pipe cinch. According to one study:
The removal of lead from automotive fuel, new residential paint, food containers, children’s toys and municipal drinking water systems constitutes one of the major public health success stories of the last quarter century in the United States. These actions have been accompanied by at least an 80 percent reduction in human exposure to lead.
The authors of the study calculated that removing all this lead caused an increase in IQ scores from 2.2 to 4.7 points, which caused an increase in income for the smarter people and an estimated economic value of $110 billion in 2002 dollars.
Unfortunately, there's still a lot of lead out there, mostly in lead pipes delivering water to between 3 and 10 million homes in older communities. In the New York Times, Michael Wines and John Schwartz write that it's all over North America, not limited to just Flint, Michigan. Of course the main reason these pipes have not been removed is the cost: $16.5 billion to $ 50 billion, a fraction of the gain in economic value noted in the study above.
Lead wasn’t even banned for plumbing until 1975. Where there was lead plumbing, most authorities were not too worried. The advice was, just let the water run for a few minutes or flush the toilet and get the still water out, and the rest will be fine. Since then we've learned that it's not inert or predictable; in Brick Township, New Jersey, the lead content in the water changed rapidly between tests.
In the next mandated test, three years later, it found that 16 of 34 homes exceeded the limit — one of them by a dozen times. The growing use of road salt in recent winters, it turned out, had raised chloride levels in the river from which Brick drew its water. Undetected, the chloride corroded aged lead pipes running to older homes, leaching lead into tap water.
In Brick or in Flint, nobody expected that changing the water would change way the lead leached out of the pipes; clearly it's time for a new look at all those water systems that have not been changed, because it's not stable and predictable like we thought. Maybe now, after this dreadful crisis in Flint and after learning how fragile our water system is, the government might make the investment in fixing the problem everywhere, but it's not likely to happen, as Congress and state governments cut regulating agencies like the EPA to the bone. Or deeper.
In another commentary in the Times, Nicholas Kristof says America is Flint. He quotes a doctor: “We are indeed all Flint. Lead poisoning continues to be a silent epidemic in the United States.”
Except it's not really true; it's a race and economic problem. We are not all Flint. Kristof writes:
Today the continuing poisoning of half a million American children is tolerated partly because the victims often are low-income children of color.
That's why it is so little a concern in Washington; people who live in nice suburban houses don't have these problems. It's Rust Belt and urban inhabitants who do.
In the Washington Post, economist Jared Bernstein goes even further:
First, the fact that the richest economy on the globe failed to provide an essential public good is a symptom of government failure with which we must reckon. Second, such failure is not a benign accident. It’s not a passive failure of lazy oversight. It is a strategy to first break and then discredit the public sector, to undermine trust and inculcate disgust. The beneficiaries of this strategy are the wealthy who will then push for smaller government and tax cuts. Those who pay the price will be people much like those in Flint. And there are many more of the latter than the former.
But the former can afford to fix their pipes, live in the right place and buy spring water.
It should be no surprise that the Google ads that show up beside the New York Times article are for bottled spring water; people everywhere are worried. And indeed in the Times, Wines and Schwartz go on to list other problems in the water supplies around the country, not just limited to lead but as many as 100 other chemicals that are not yet regulated. This is frustrating, because it's conflating two issues: lead contamination, which affects some, and all the other chemicals, which affect everyone. It's almost an invitation for the whole country to be nervous about what they're drinking.
However they also note in the Times that “Federal officials and many scientists agree that most of the nation’s 53,000 community water systems provide safe drinking water.”
So before you hit the bottle, check with your own water supplier. While the Times article is scary, test after test has shown tap water to be as safe and often safer than bottled. Nothing has changed there. And I'm curious, has all this coverage of Flint and water quality changed your attitude toward bottled water? You can take a poll here.