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Lead Paint Poisoning
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Flint is Not Alone in Lead-Tainted Water Crisis

Feb 10, 2016

Flint, Michigan may be faced with the most serious water-contamination issue in the country. As many as 8,000 children under age 6 have been exposed to unsafe levels of lead in the drinking water. The crisis occurred after budget cuts prompted the city to switch its water source. Lead exposure in children can lead to developmental delays. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there is no safe level of lead in children.

The New York Times reports that water-contamination issues are not limited to Flint. Lead exposure has occurred in many other cities, including Durham and Greenville, NC in 2006 and Columbia, SC in 2005. Last year, lead was identified in Jackson, Miss.; residents were not informed for six months.

In the town of Sebring, Ohio last year, unsafe levels of lead were identified in the drinking water. The lead contamination occurred after workers stopped adding a chemical that prevents corrosion in lead water pipes. For five months, city officials failed to stop pregnant women and children from drinking the tap water.

Washington, D.C. also faced lead exposure after the city changed methods for disinfecting its drinking water. Tap water in homes contained as much as 20 times the federally approved level of lead in 2001. For three years, residents did not know about the problem. When they were finally informed, officials tore out lead pipes leading to 17,600 homes. However, it was discovered three years later that these repairs ultimately prolonged the lead exposure.

"We have a lot of threats to the water supply," said Dr. Jeffrey K. Griffiths, a professor of public health at Tufts University and a former chairman of the E.P.A.’s Drinking Water Committee, to NYT. "And we have lots of really good professionals in the water industry who see themselves as protecting the public good. But it doesn’t take much for our aging infrastructure or an unprofessional actor to allow that protection to fall apart."

Of the 53,000 community water systems in the United States, many scientists and federal officials agree most are safe. However, drinking water issues such as the one in Flint highlight regulatory loopholes. Clean-water laws that regulating levels of toxic pollutants do not cover water utility-tapped streams serving a third of the population, the Environmental Protection Agency says. Even purified water often travels through pipes in poor condition.

Lead water pipes were banned by Congress three decades ago. But older ones, somewhere between 3.3 million and 10 million, have not been removed and can release lead into the drinking water when the water chemistry changes or when jostled by forces such as repairs.

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