When students in Detroit returned to public schools this week, the water fountains were dry. The reason: elevated levels of lead blamed on aging school facilities and uncertainty about how widespread the contamination is.
In New York, reports last week revealed that children in public housing there continue to experience high levels of lead exposure. One factor: City officials haven’t checked the paint in many apartments to see whether it’s contaminated.
Those stories are grim reminders of the nation’s need to continue fighting the war on lead in soil, water, homes, public housing, and public buildings. Four years after the water crisis in Flint, Mich., roused the alarm, lead continues to threaten the public health, especially that of children. That will change only with costly remediation, comprehensive testing of children, and vigilance.
The problem in Detroit, where schools will provide bottled water to students, is far from unique. Other school systems with older buildings — including citiesthroughout the Rust Belt — have installed new water fountains to attack lead.
The Flint crisis raised the alarm about lead-tainted water and prompted communities across the country to begin replacing lead lines. Other systems with lead lines should make and implement plans for eliminating their lead lines because no amount of exposure really is safe.
Detroit isn’t sure how many of its schools have water-quality problems, but it’s turning off the fountains at all of them until it can find out. That’s the prudent step and the approach New York’s public housing agency — the nation’s largest public landlord — should have adopted toward lead in its units.
Flaking and peeling lead-based paint is an even greater risk than contaminated water, authorities say. While overall lead exposure rates in New York’s children have declined, the problem in public housing lingers, the New York Times reported, citing the city’s slowness in inspecting its units for contamination. A plan for completing the work is in the works, but it will cost about $80 million.
Testing — of water and children — is the complement of remediation.
Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority offers free water testing kits, and all customers should take advantage of them. Allegheny County mandates the testing of all children for lead at 9 to 12 months old and again at 24 months. Underinsured and uninsured children can be tested for free.
In Toledo, efforts to force certain landlords and daycare operations to test for lead hazards have been stymied by a lawsuit brought by property owners who objected to the requirements. The law was too narrow — it should have applied to all rental housing — but it would have been a step forward.
Cleaning up the lead isn’t only about public health. It’s also about community image. Cities will score lower in the eyes of prospective residents, businesses and developers if they can’t provide basic necessities like contaminant-free water and safe housing for people of all income levels.
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