Safe drinking water: only for the rich?

Toxic lead in pipes a widespread crisis

Across the United States, workers are replacing millions of lead water pipes that are still endangering older neighborhoods. PHOTO: Susan Law Cain
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Federal and local governments and utilities have deliberately afflicted communities of color with lead-contaminated homes and drinking water for decades. The 2014–2016 poisoned water crisis in Flint, Michigan, exploded around its primary victims — children of color. Countless studies now prove that drinking water for more than nine million homes in the U.S. come through lead service lines or pipes, which leach lead into drinking water and threaten learning and behavioral development in children.

Experts agree that there is no safe lead blood level for children. Even low degrees of exposure in the very young are linked to impaired brain and nervous system development. Once the harm is done, its disabling effects are permanent and no health or policy measures can reverse them.

Flint was just the tip of the iceberg. A 2016 account located over 2,600 areas in the United States with recorded lead poisoning rates that were at least double those in Flint when the city reached its peak level of lead contamination.

For low-income children of color, government-sanctioned racist policies and inadequate lead prevention laws contribute to the highest rate of irreversible lead poisoning.

Racism at the heart. Lead contamination in predominantly Black households can be traced to redlining. Starting in the 1920s, the federal government, private banks and real estate big business blocked Black and other minority families from getting federal loans to buy homes in white neighborhoods. The poorest working people were abandoned to perilous living conditions, such as environmental hazards like lead poisoning.

Today, about 60% of Black Americans live in neighborhoods that were redlined before the practice was finally outlawed in 1968 under the Fair Housing Act. But the hazards were not eliminated. Currently, the majority of utilities across the country only replace lead pipes on public property, which can loosen dangerous sedentary lead particles inside pipes in the home. Utilities are requiring owners to take out loans to pay for safe water piping on their property.

Obviously, this unfairly endangers low-income households who cannot finance safe drinking water. Families living in subsidized rental units, meanwhile, are forced to choose between lead poisoning, loss of rental assistance, or homelessness.

To further confound the crisis, most municipalities do not know where their lead pipes are, due to decades of grossly incompetent record keeping. Financially, replacement projects and funds are often given to private-profit contractors at a much higher cost than if fixed by permanent civil service workers.

The battle has just begun. Elevated blood lead levels still plague Black and Latinx children living in many segregated cities like Flint and beyond. Nayyirah Shariff, Director of Flint Rising, a resolute coalition of activists and advocates leading the fight in Michigan, expressed outrage at a recent the State Supreme Court decision that threw out charges against the former governor and eight other officials: “We’re day 2,988 now, without clean and safe water in Flint. And no one is being held accountable.”

Across the country, there are 10 million reported lead water lines. The only solution is full replacement of these pipes, at a predicted cost of approximately $50 billion. The Biden administration’s recent $15 billion infrastructure bill and additional $9 billion reserved for lead-cursed communities do not come close. A meager response indeed, from the richest government in the world.

It will take steadfast, multi-racial community protests, dedicated science and healthcare workers, militant unions, and hefty pressure on the mainstream media to tell the whole truth. An outraged and determined public must force the wealthiest nation on earth to halt poisoning its poorest peoples and their defenseless children.

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