The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will provide some relief for an important human service need, reducing children’s exposure to dangerous lead in our drinking water.
In the middle of the last decade, the country saw close-up the havoc lead contamination can mean to a city and more importantly the families that live there. By 2016 a 2014 decision to change the water supply for Flint without carefully evaluating consequences resulted in the freeing up of lead in the city’s older water pipe system. Last week a partial settlement of $600 million was agreed to with the bulk of the funds for people who were children at the time of exposure.
According to the CDC, exposure to lead can seriously harm a child’s health and cause well-documented adverse effects such as: Damage to the brain and nervous system; Slowed growth and development; Learning and behavior problems; Hearing and speech problems and all of these can result in: Lower IQ; Decreased ability to pay attention; and Underperformance in school.
The provisions in the new infrastructure bill makes an important down payment in helping cities to address this problem. Flint is an example of how lead exposure impacts on families. The result was children and families struggling not just with the economic and day to day life experiences but the real threat to child safety. Exposure to any amount of lead can cause harm to a child’s health. Children of Hispanic, Black families or those living in low-income households, and those who are immigrants or refugees, are more likely to live in communities where lead is pervasive.
Since Flint’s struggles another city in Michigan has found itself in the eye of the storm. In 2018, Benton Harbor, Michigan, identified a contamination crisis leaving citizens with foul smelling, yellow water. On September 8th, 2021, citizens petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) asking for a water pipeline investigation. As a result, EPA investigations found lead levels
47 times the amount required for intervention. Additionally, it was discovered that 51% of service lines contained lead, and the aging infrastructure of the water plant resulted in a caved in roof. From receiving this information, citizens of Benton Harbor called for federal and state help.
Lead contamination comes from corrosion of plumbing and service lines, so there is no telling how long this lead contamination has gone on prior to 2018. It is possible this problem has festered even prior to 2009, when Benton Harbor was required by the state of Michigan to spend $12 million to fix the “deficient” water system. Benton Harbor could barely afford this infrastructure revamp and still suffers financially with a deficit.
Officials and citizens hypothesize that the discovery of lead in 2018 came from changes in sampling, not the pipe itself. At this point, citizens are suffering from the adverse effects of the aged pipes. On October 21, 2021, a water pipe broke, causing schools and businesses to shut down and citizens had to rely on emergency supplies of bottled water. Despite this temporary effort, bottled water cannot erase the damages caused by negligence.
In 2020, 3.8 percent of tested children in Berrien County (Benton Harbor) had elevated lead levels, this was the second year in a row of alarming increased lead levels in children. Within Benton Harbor itself, 2.8 percent of tested children younger than six, tested for elevated lead in 2018. This number increased to 5.1 percent in 2019. A long-time Benton Harbor resident, Bobbie Clay, shared stories of her children and grandchild in an interview with NBC. Clay expresses her concern for the long-term health consequences in young children. “The water is affecting our children” she said. “There is a noticeable change between how my kids were versus my grandkids. The young ones are extremely hyperactive and large numbers of parents have been going to doctors to figure out what’s going on.”
This year for National Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Week, October 24-30, InterCare Health Network held a fall health event that helped children in Benton Harbor get tested for lead poisoning at no cost. In response to residents of Benton Harbor, Lieutenant Governor Garlin Gilchrist (D-MI) addressed the environmental tragedy in a public television interview last October and said “Every person deserves access to clean and safe drinking water, and every community deserves lead-free pipes. So, we are committed to doing everything that we can to ensure that every parent in Benton Harbor can give their child a glass of water with confidence,” committing to state replacement of all city lead water pipes within 18 months.
In response to the crisis Mayor Marcus Muhammad said, “…at the end of the day, we can declare a state of emergency, but without the money and the resources, nothing can be done.”
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