The fallout and the impact of the lead crisis in the drinking water in Flint, Michigan, is staggering. Immediate aid as measured by various proposed state and federal packages will range well into the hundreds of millions and long-term support for the health of the victims in Flint will likely be just as costly. The monetary costs of this crisis could reach into the billions, and although they are the easiest to quantify, they are the least important from a humanitarian perspective. The long-term health and behavior of impacted children will be at risk as lead is a permanent poison that impacts development. The mental and emotional health of communities in Flint will be impacted. Real estate and community ownership will be affected. This crisis will affect in some way the entire future of the city.
The aftermath of Flint will be staggering. However, recent reporting has uncovered several towns with the same underlying issues with lead pipes and decaying water infrastructure. Sebring, Ohio, is suffering a lead crisis as well, and towns across Michigan are turning up with high levels of lead exposure in drinking water. These towns in turn represent the plight of the Rust Belt: towns with declining populations after an industry crash are all suffering from the effects of aging infrastructure, a reduced tax base, and governance that values saving money above public safety.
But even these towns only represent a cross-section of America’s water problem. The New York Times reports:
Federal officials and many scientists agree that most of the nation’s 53,000 community water systems provide safe drinking water. But such episodes are unsettling reminders of what experts say are holes in the safety net of rules and procedures intended to keep water not just lead-free, but free of all poisons.
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.
While on the whole America’s drinking water is safe, disturbing incidents like Flint and Sebring, as well as the unsafe levels of lead found in Durham, Greenville, and Jackson, represent an inequality. Poor and minority populations are the most vulnerable to lead and the least likely to spur actual government action to protect or fix drinking water sources. In cases such as Flint, external forces control the decisions about the water supply with little regard to public health.
The New York Times reports that similar decision-making and similar public health problems have arisen throughout towns across the country. The staggering costs of clean water often play a part: somehow cities such as Detroit and Flint struggle with affording water despite being surrounded by the Great Lakes system, one of the largest freshwater drinking sources in the world. Costs were a key factor in the decision in Flint to switch from purchasing water from Detroit to using the Flint River as a temporary source. That decision, along with aging lead pipes and total regulatory malfeasance, led to thousands of children potentially being poisoned.
The associated costs in Flint represent a nightmare scenario for hundreds of similar towns in America. The lack of serious concern for the country’s water infrastructure will hit poor and majority-minority cities such as Flint the hardest. A country as wealthy as America should be able to provide clean water, the most basic human need. So why doesn’t it?
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