America’s massive lead problem came into focus in 2015, when thousands of mostly Black residents in the city of Flint, Michigan, were found to have been poisoned by lead in their drinking water. Since then it has become clear that this problem is systemic and widespread, and that many other Americans lack access to water that is reliably safe and clean. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said there are no safe levels of lead, which is now recognized as a neurotoxin that can cause lower IQ, developmental delays and behavioral problems in children, as well as kidney and cardiovascular problems in adults. But there are still up to 12.8m houses and apartment buildings connected to the water system with lead lines in the US, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Biden had promised to rid the nation of lead contamination of its water supply. Yet the 2021 infrastructure spending package approved by Congress contained only enough federal funding to replace a third of the country’s lead pipes – leaving cities to figure the rest out for themselves.
The issue is now of low-income residents being left out of lead line replacements – or even getting more lead because of partial fixes. Studies have found that black and brown children are far more likely to have elevated levels of lead in their blood and to live in older homes with lead lines, yet it tends to be wealthier white residents who take advantage of local programs that offer property owners loans to replace lead pipes.
Cities that are undertaking lead replacement programs often ask homeowners to pay to replace the portions under their private property. If owners don’t pay, some cities essentially cut the lines in half, removing the city-owned portions of the lead lines but leaving the lines on private property intact. One problem, for those in buildings with no replacements, is that they still have lead pipes. Another is that disrupting or cutting the old pipes can cause more lead to break loose and flow into the residents’ water.
“We’re just dealing with so many other things in our community,” said Monica Huertas, a social worker, who runs a neighborhood environmental group. “It’s the water, it’s the soil, it’s the jobs, it’s the color of your skin … Our community’s overburdened and we’re all overworked and underpaid.”