Lead in our Drinking Water

By Hubert Plummer posted 11 days ago


In October of 2018, I posted a blog promoting a program co-sponsored by the Civil Rights Committee titled The War on Science is a War on Civil Rights.  It was held on October 26, 2018 and was a fantastic program.  It was also frightening and enraging.  Just this past week, at the 2020 Annual Meeting of the New York State Bar Association, the Environmental & Energy Law Section presented a program on Lead in Drinking Water, co-sponsored by the Civil Rights Committee. Once again fascinating and frightening.

What does lead in drinking water have to do with Civil Rights I hear you ask?  Why would you claim that the war on science is a war on civil rights?  Well, what is the point of civil rights?  Civil rights laws exist to protect the most defenseless in society.  Who are the defenseless?  The poor, minorities, groups that are not given the same rights as others, or are denied those rights they do have are the ones that civil rights laws protect.  As Thomas Jefferson said, “All . . . will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect and to violate would be oppression.”  In other words, it is the duty of the majority to protect the rights of the minority.

How does this tie in with the war on science and lead in water?  As we learned at the Lead In Drinking Water program, there is no safe level of lead in drinking water.  Lead is not present naturally in ground water.  It only gets there through the actions of people.  Even small amounts of lead ingested by children can have a profound impact on their developing brain.  It can reduce IQ, it can reduce impulse control and the ability to deal with frustration.  The Flint school district has a disproportionate level of children with learning and behavioral disabilities. [i]

Yet a good percentage of drinking water systems in the country have some amount of lead.  Some have really high levels of lead.  The lead in residential drinking water generally comes from the pipe running from the main in the street to the house, known as the service line.  Very often those pipes are made of lead.  Lead was cheap and malleable, making it easy to work with.  Over time the lead inside surface of the pipe develops a crust to inhibit leaching of the lead into the drinking water.  This can be achieved by adjusting the pH, and calcium and carbonates to encourage a calcium carbonate coating. [ii]

That coating, however, is vulnerable to the same factors out of balance. For example, in Flint, Michigan the water authority switched from Detroit municipal water to a new supplier, that new water was more acidic, it broke down the coating to allow leaching of lead.[iii]  Similarly in Washington, D.C. the utility (the US Army Corps of Engineers) switched the disinfection chemical from chlorine to chloramine.  That switch caused a chemical reaction which broke down the coating in the pipes, again allowing leaching of lead.[iv]

Public buildings, such as schools and hospitals have also been found with elevated lead levels.  Those buildings don’t use lead service lines, but many of their fixtures have lead.  Brass fittings such as faucets and drinking fountains contained lead until the government, only recently, imposed limitations.  Also, solder in pipe connections and fittings contain lead as do galvanized pipes.  Those fittings leached lead under the same circumstances.

What will it take to eliminate lead in our drinking water?  The only real answer is eliminating the lead from the infrastructure.  Replace the lead service pipes, replace the fittings and solder joints containing lead.  Needless to say, that will cost a lot of money.

So we’ve finally made it to the civil rights part of this.  Is clean and safe drinking water a civil right?  I’d say it is.  I would say it’s a basic human right.  Who feels the impact of the lead in drinking water crisis the most?  The poor, minorities, the disadvantaged and children are the ones who suffer.[v]  Rich folks can change their service lines.  People living paycheck to paycheck cannot.  People renting from a disinterested or miserly landlord cannot.  This is evident in Flint.  Flint is a city struggling with its economy.  It has a poverty rate of over 40%.  The average annual income is only about $26,000.  Property values are declining.[vi]  Add to that the poisoned water and you have a clear case of a powerless population being treated differently, being denied their rights to clean safe drinking water.  With the water causing learning and behavioral difficulties in the young generation, the city is being set up for long term difficulties.

 The switch in Flint’s water source happened in 2014.  There have been many lawsuits and a declaration of emergency by then President Obama that resulted in at least two hundred million dollars earmarked for replacement of lead pipes in Flint. It took years before the government even acknowledged the problem in Flint and remediation has barely begun. 

Likewise in Washington, D.C., whose crisis began in 2004, the city was slow to acknowledge the problem and so to react.  It has since changed the chemicals in the water trying to reform the coating in the pipes as well as replace lead pipes.  Of course D.C. has about 7 times the population of Flint, 700,000 vs 96,000, which means a much bigger mess to clean up, but the city is wealthier and being the capital has a voice.[vii]

A similar situation is now unfolding in Newark, New Jersey.[viii]  In fact, the problem is nationwide.[ix]   It is only a matter of time before more and more towns and cities become aware of problems with lead in their water and they cycle continues.  Children needlessly harmed, their futures made even more difficult from the effects of the lead compounded by their poverty and minority status.  This mostly ignored class of humans is a clear example of the need for civil rights laws and the protections they offer because the privileged in life won’t protect them unless they have to.

[i] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/06/us/politics/flint-michigan-schools.html

[ii] https://www.nrdc.org/flint

[iii] https://www.cnn.com/2016/03/04/us/flint-water-crisis-fast-facts/index.html

[iv] https://www.epa.gov/ground-water-and-drinking-water/basic-information-about-lead-drinking-water

[v] https://www.nrdc.org/experts/rhea-suh/make-progress-our-mission-we-cannot-ignore-racism

[vi][vi] https://datausa.io/profile/geo/flint-mi/

[vii] https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/dcs-decade-old-problem-of-lead-in-water-gets-new-attention-during-flint-crisis/2016/03/17/79f8d476-ec64-11e5-b0fd-073d5930a7b7_story.html

[viii] https://www.nrdc.org/newark-drinking-water-crisis

[ix] https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2016/03/17/drinking-water-lead-schools-day-cares/81220916/

The author[s] is solely responsible for this blog submission.  It does not represent the position of the New York State Bar Association or its Committee.