How COVID — And Lead in Water — Highlight Government Shortcomings

September 9, 2020
girl in facemask

The news stories about the COVID pandemic keep stinging me with what we don’t understand about this virus. Do children really get less sick than adults? Which of the tests is accurate enough? What percentage of Americans had the virus but aren’t counted in the caseload or the death toll? 

The scarcity of solid information on COVID makes me even more frustrated about the Trump Administration’s refusal to do what we clearly know how to do to solve a problem that, like COVID, impacts billions of people: the problem of lead contamination in drinking water. We don’t just want a government that protects us - we need a government that protects us. 

An analysis by NRDC’s  Dr. Kristi Pullen Fedinick found that nearly 30 million people get their drinking water from systems that have high levels of lead and copper. NRDC’s report also showed that — like COVID — people of color are getting hurt worse — the dangerously high levels of contamination in drinking water happen 40% more often in communities with higher percentages of people of color, according to EPA data from 2016-2019. 

The science on how exposure to lead harms health — especially the brain development of children both before and after birth — is strong and compelling. The scientific consensus is clear on the CDC website: 

No safe blood lead level in children has been identified. Even low levels of lead in blood have been shown to affect IQ, ability to pay attention, and academic achievement. And the effects of lead exposure cannot be corrected.

We know how to solve the problem of lead in water — replace the old lead pipes with safer lead-free alternatives. And replacing the 6 to 10 million lead lines that deliver water to homes, schools, hospitals, and day-care centers will put people back to work.  Better health — new infrastructure — more jobs — it seems like a wise community investment. 

But replacing lead water pipes is an expenditure that cities have to balance against all the demands on a local government’s budget. Health-focused federal rules and EPA funding support are the two things water system authorities need for lead service line replacement to rise to the top of local officials’ budget priorities. 

That’s why the US EPA’s long-awaited revisions to the Lead and Copper Rule matter so much. And that’s why we need to support leaders who will do much more than what EPA is requiring in their deeply flawed revisions.

The EPA published a draft of a proposed rule in November 2019; the final rule is expected this fall. In all likelihood, the final rule will be just like the 2019 draft, allowing water systems to take 33 years to replace their lead water pipes. For local government officials faced with competing demands, 33 years can sound the same as never or at least not during my term in office. 

Some cities aren’t waiting for the final version of the Lead and Copper Rule. Denver Colorado has adopted an ambitious plan to replace all lead service lines in the next ten years. Madison Wisconsin has already done so. These city leaders aren’t allowing the current Administration to define what safe means. Other cities with a lead problem need to be encouraged to join Madison and Denver.

This fall, Healthy Babies Bright Futures will release a new report about the results of the 800 homes we’ve tested for lead in drinking water. Our analysis of the data will show that legal is not the same as safe, especially for babies. And safe — from COVID or lead exposure — is the goal we must have for our families and for the government we support.