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Infrastructure Priorities for Racial Equity: Lead Poisoning and Water Poverty

Algernon Austin

This blog post adds details to the discussion of lead poisoning and “water poverty” in “Infrastructure Priorities for Racial Equity: How The People’s Budget Helps and Trump’s Budget Hurts.” It is one of a series of blogs on the priority areas for infrastructure investments to achieve racial equity.

Stop the Lead Poisoning of Our Children

Children exposed to lead can suffer from permanent intellectual and behavioral disabilities. Over the decades, we have successfully reduced the number of children being exposed to lead. That’s the good news. The bad news is that relatively high levels of lead exposure persist in some urban communities of color. The historical trend data show that these racial disparities are not new. In a study of Chicago, the sociologists Richard J. Sampson and Alix S. Winter report, “Black and Hispanic neighborhoods exhibited extraordinarily high rates of lead toxicity compared to White neighborhoods at the start of our study in 1995, in some cases with prevalence rates topping 90% of the child population. Black disadvantage in particular is pronounced not only relative to Whites but even relative to Hispanics . . . in every year from 1995-2013.”

The even worse news is that new research released last month finds that the number of children with elevated blood lead levels is twice that reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). For the 1999-2010 period investigated, the researchers concluded that 1.2 million children suffered from lead poisoning—not 600,000 as reported by the CDC. The study used a very high threshold for determining an elevated blood lead level. However, we know that any level of lead in a child’s blood can be harmful; therefore, the number of children at risk is far greater than 1.2 million.

Until recently, household paint in old homes and the soil around those homes in the Northeast and Midwest were considered the major sources of lead contamination. But the new research, which finds that 70 percent of lead-poisoned children in the South and West are not being tested or treated, may mean that we do not fully understand the problem. Recent findings of shockingly high levels of lead in the water in public schools such as in New York City, Newark, New Jersey, and Portland, Oregon also suggest that we should reconsider the safety of our water systems. We must address all of the sources of lead contamination if we wish to eliminate this threat to our children.

For communities of color, infrastructure dollars need to be dedicated to significantly reducing the risk of children being exposed to lead. The harm caused by elevated blood levels is profound and permanent. We know how to remove lead, yet we have not been strongly attacking the problem. As the journalist Sarah Frostenson states, “it’s an egregious and preventable public health issue.” Addressing this problem should be a national priority. 

End Water Poverty

The Flint water crisis woke the nation up to one problem with our water infrastructure. But a lesser known problem is “water poverty.” There are low-income, rural communities in the United States that lack access to sufficient amounts of clean water. These communities are forced to subsist on a tiny fraction of the amount of water that the average American consumes. Scarcity sometimes compels residents to turn to contaminated water sources. These communities are disproportionately poor and of color. American Indian and Alaska Native communities and Latino colonias along the border with Mexico are well represented among those suffering from water poverty.