The city of Flint, Michigan is not alone in facing drinking-water contamination issues, New York Times reports. After budget cuts led to a switch in water source, as many as 8,000 children under age 6 have been exposed to dangerously high levels of lead. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there is no safe level of lead in children. Even in small amounts, lead exposure can lead to developmental problems.
According to NYT, issues with tainted drinking-water are not limited to Flint, which may be the site of the most serious contamination in the country. Last year, the town of Sebring, Ohio found unsafe levels of lead in the drinking water. The lead contamination stemmed from the fact that workers stopped adding a chemical that prevents corrosion in lead water pipes. City officials did not take action to protect pregnant women or children for five months. Lead contamination also occurred in Washington, D.C. after the city changed methods for disinfecting its drinking water. In 2001, tap water in homes contained as much as 20 times the federally approved level of lead. Residents did not know about the issue for three years. When they were finally notified, officials made repairs that ultimately only prolonged the lead exposure.
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.
There are 53,000 community water systems in the United States. Many scientists and federal officials agree that most of them are safe, but water contamination issues such as the one in Flint shed light on regulatory loopholes. There are clean-water laws that regulate levels of toxic pollutants. However, these laws do not cover water utility-tapped streams serving a third of the population, the Environmental Protection Agency says. Even when water is purified, it frequently travels through pipes in desperate need of repair.
Congress banned lead water pipes three decades ago. But older ones, somewhere between 3.3 million and 10 million, are still in place. These pipes can release lead into the drinking water when the water chemistry changes or when jostled by forces such as repairs.
“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.”