It has been four years since the onset of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, and the public still doesn’t know who to hold accountable. While ongoing investigations and trials seek to sort out both accountability and blame, many Flint residents continue to lack access to clean drinking water, which should be a basic human right.
While we search for the truth in Flint, it is important to examine the extent to which the threat of lead poisoning exists throughout the country. Within months of the Flint story breaking, lead testing in other cities revealed that the narrative was broader and more complicated. In August of 2016, the Chicago Sun Times discovered elevated lead levels in more than one hundred of that city’s schools. In Newark, The New York Times found, officials had been aware of elevated lead levels in public drinking water for almost a decade. Reports out of Texas, Wisconsin, California, and Minnesota have found both higher than expected levels of lead and evidence of questionable testing tactics.
In early 2017, The New York Times reported that New York City engages in a lead testing practice experts consider to be a way of gaming the system. The night before testing, the city runs a school’s water for up to eight hours. While the city has argued this “pre-stagnation flushing” constitutes accepted practice, experts argue this approach can lead to artificially misrepresenting lead levels well below the actual rates of contamination. After running tests without “pre-stagnation flushing,” lead levels were several thousand times higher [my emphasis] than previously reported.
But, was the obfuscation perpetrated by New York City officials a deliberate attempt to mislead the public? And how widespread are official efforts to disguise the toxicity of water consumed by school children in America? Given the elevated levels of contamination in cities outside of New York, determining whether officials in those municipalities have engaged in similar testing tactics is a matter of life and death for vulnerable communities. Perhaps most importantly, to what extent does the artificial representation of lowered lead levels constitute a national cover-up of a public health crisis?
Not to mention, the trouble of lead contamination has a long history shaped by racial overtones. Though the use of lead in house paint and commercial products was banned by the early 1980s, older homes concentrated in black and Latino neighborhoods continue to shed paint chips and dust full of poisonous lead. Even low levels of lead in a child’s blood can lead to permanent intellectual impairment, and studies have linked the prevalence of lead poisoning in communities of color to statistically significant detrimental effects on academic achievement.
At the very least, the problems in Flint may extend well beyond the state of Michigan. Most importantly, the families and children in our most vulnerable cities deserve to know whether their government is lying to them about the levels of lead in their water. Only great investigative reporting, coupled with sustained public pressure, will create enough heat to reveal the truth.