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The Lesson from Flint: Deregulation is Good for Business But Bad for our Health

Over the past two days, the NYTimes ran two articles about drinking water that should make every American get on the phone to their State and Federal legislators and demand more testing of water and a massive investment in the infrastructure that provides us with see drinking water.

What the Science Says about the Long Term Damage from LeadAaron E. Carroll’s Upshot article in yesterday’s paper should be a wake up call for those who want to see improvement in our public schools. Carroll reviews the research linking lead contamination with this lead-off:

Jessica Wolpaw Reyes, a leading expert on the effects of lead exposure in children, found that not only did elevated lead levels correspond to low achievement test scores in third and fourth grade, but also that communities where people managed to lower their lead levels in the 1990s saw increased scores in the 2000s.

Carroll then offers a synopsis of decades of research on the impact of lead before circling back to Ms. Reyes in depth studies on how the impact that goes beyond the classroom:

The damage associated with lead exposure goes far beyond schooling. In a paper published in Economic Inquiry last year, Ms. Reyes used data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth to examine the possible link between lead exposure in early childhood and later behavioral outcomes. She found that, even after controlling for other factors, high blood lead levels were associated with increased oppositional, hyperactive and bullying behaviors in children.

Teenagers who had high lead levels in childhood were more likely to have had sex by 13, be pregnant by age 17 and smoke or drink while in their early teens. There is even some evidence of a connection to crime.

While he doesn’t assign a specific price tag to the cost of fixing our infrastructure, Carroll does give a sense of the scope of the problem:

Ms. Reyes emailed me: “Once the lead has been mobilized from the pipes, it’s not so easy to put it back: Lead may continue leaching into the water for some time. Further, water filters have finite capacity, and filters dealing with heavily contaminated water may need to be changed more often than every three months.”

Moreover, too much lead is still around in old paint in deteriorating housing. It’s still in the soil from when lead was commonly airborne from exhaust. Until we solve the lead problem for good, we may be condemning children to a lifetime of problems. Flint is just the latest example.

Today’s NYTimes has a lengthy article by Michael Wines and John Schwartz that elaborates on the problems with lead poisoning and describes the legislative inertia that makes it highly unlikely that this problem will be addressed any time soon. They outline the scope of the problem, which is daunting:

The Environmental Protection Agency says streams tapped by water utilities serving a third of the population are not yet covered by clean-water laws that limit levels of toxic pollutants. Even purified water often travels to homes through pipes that are in stunning disrepair, potentially open to disease and pollutants.

Although Congress banned lead water pipes 30 years ago, between 3.3 million and 10 million older ones remain, primed to leach lead into tap water by forces as simple as jostling during repairs or a change in water chemistry.

And while one would hope Flint MI’s case would serve as a wake up call, nothing of the sort has happened. Indeed, Congress not only ignored the problems with the sources of drinking water in the nation, they attempted to pass laws to weaken the oversight of water! Why? Wines and Schwartz summarize the problem with this sentence:

Efforts to address shortcomings often encounter pushback from industries like agriculture and mining that fear cost increases, and from politicians ideologically opposed to regulation.

So the corporate bottom line is more important than the lives of thousands of children and the principle that unregulated  capitalism is necessary is unshaken despite the evidence that it creates suffering among those who cannot find good jobs and live in underfunded communities with obsolete and unsafe infrastructure. And the problem isn’t going to go away and the cost to fix it will be high:

The (EPA’s independent Drinking Water) advisory group also urged the E.P.A. to require water systems to eventually replace all lead pipes, but it did not address the main obstacle to that goal: cost. At $5,000 per pipe, by one estimate, that would consume between $16.5 billion and $50 billion — and that is but a fraction of the $384 billion in deferred maintenance the E.P.A. says is needed by 2030 to keep drinking water safe.

Erik D. Olson, head of the health and environment program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said: “You think our roads and bridges aren’t being fixed? The stuff underground is just totally ignored. We’re mostly living off the investment of our parents and grandparents for our drinking water supply.”

Will my generation do the right thing and make the investment in drinking water that previous generations made on our behalf? My hopes for such a change of heart are low, but maybe when we see the need to protect our grandchildren from the ill effects of poor drinking water we might be willing to make a small sacrifice. If my investments and my social security incomes don’t grow quite as fast, it would be well worth it.

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