18 Million U.S. Citizens Exposed to Lead-Contaminated Water Systems

Trump’s cuts to the EPA will make it nearly impossible for the agency to track down violations of lead standards and enforce public health protections, says Erik D. Olson of the Natural Resources Defense Council

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Story Transcript

SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.

When we think of access to fresh, clean drinking water, we still think of least developed poor countries, and their struggle with access to clean water supplies. As millions around the world, are gripped by drought and floods. At the same time, here in the U.S., access to clean water is also becoming a more significant concern. With President Donald Trump’s plans to cut the EPA by 31%, will the EPA be able to keep drinking water safe across the U.S.? Will there be more lead contamination, as there was in Flint, Michigan’s drinking water last year?

According to our next guest, Flint is not alone. A report he co-authored with, “What’s In Your Water: Flint and Beyond”, found that 18 million people in the U.S. were served by water systems with lead violations.

To discuss the current state of water safety in the United States, we are being joined by Erik D. Olson. He’s the director of The Health Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, NRDC. Erik, good to have you with us.

ERIK D. OLSON: Thank you. It’s great to be with you.

SHARMINI PERIES: Erik, first, I understand before the Flint crisis, Flint didn’t actually show up as having any violations, in terms of lead levels, by EPA databases. What does this tell us about the monitoring of water across the U.S.?

ERIK D. OLSON: Well, that’s right. I mean, a lot of people are absolutely flabbergasted to hear that Flint did not even show up as having any violations in the national database, even though thousands of other systems have had violations. So, what this tells us, is that there are a lot of lead problems, and frankly other contamination problems all over the country that aren’t being picked up by our monitoring system. And that’s something to really worry about.

SHARMINI PERIES: Give us a scope of the problem, in terms of lead in America’s drinking water.

ERIK D. OLSON: Well, as you mentioned at the top, we found that about 18 million people in the U.S. are served by water systems that violated EPA’s lead rule. And some of those violations were things like they didn’t test the water, to make sure that it had acceptable levels of lead, or they didn’t treat the water. And some of them were fundamental problems, where they had excessive lead; they hadn’t taken action, like adding the chemicals that will reduce the lead levels, very much like what happened in Flint.

And we actually found that, believe or not, there are about 4 million households — 4 million people, actually –- that were served by systems that knew that they had too much lead in their water, and very often little, or nothing was being done about it.

SHARMINI PERIES: And the damage that can be caused by drinking water, especially for children, is quite grave.

ERIK D. OLSON: That’s right. Unfortunately, lead is a toxin that especially hurts kids. It interferes with how your brain develops, especially as a young child. It can actually cause miscarriages in pregnant women, and unfortunately, some of the effects on cognition, on the way that children think, can be long-lasting and, in fact, probably are irreversible.

So, too much lead in your water, or, frankly, too much lead from any source, is a real danger and can cause all sorts of problems throughout a child’s life, as they get older.

SHARMINI PERIES: Right. And I was actually on a school tour for our four-year-old twins yesterday, here in Baltimore, Maryland, and I noticed that over the drinking water foundations there was a big X on it, and there was a note saying, ‘Do Not Drink.” Is this the kind of future we are going to see, and does that mean there’s something contaminated in the school?

ERIK D. OLSON: Yes. This is a widespread problem. A lot of schools have older equipment. Some of them have lead pipes in the school, or feeding into the school from the water main -– they’re called lead service lines — and some of them have fixtures and fittings, and drinking fountains that may have lead in them.

So, one of the fundamental things that we need to do, is really invest in our water infrastructure, and that means the pipes underground, and, honestly, that means a lot of schools and daycare centers need to check on whether they’ve got lead in their water that’s coming out of their drinking fountains, and make sure kids are protected and remove those from service. And obviously replace them with something that’s not going to make their kids get too much lead in the water.

SHARMINI PERIES: Right. And how much of the problem is pipes and retrofitting involved, and how much of the problem in the U.S. is really contaminated water sources?

ERIK D. OLSON: Well, for lead, the vast majority of the lead that ends up in people’s tap water comes from pipes and from fixtures. We know about 22 million people get their water from, what basically is a lead straw. It’s a pipe that goes from the water main to the person’s house, and that’s called a lead service line, and we really need to pull those out of the ground.

They’re doing that in some cities, in Lansing, Michigan, in Madison, Wisconsin, a few other cities have made that commitment. We’re trying to get that to happen at Flint, and we would like to see much more broadly, nationally, a plan to pull out all those lead pipes across the country. That’s going to cost money, we need to invest in it.

SHARMINI PERIES: Right. Now, with President Trump’s proposed budget cuts, 31% for the EPA, could we expect to see more crises like the one in Flint, Michigan?

ERIK D. OLSON: Unfortunately, I think that’s a very real threat. If you actually imagine that you cut 31% of the EPA’s budget, and fire 3,200 people — which is what they’re proposing — of the EPA staff. It’s going to be very difficult, or impossible, for the EPA to be tracking down violations of the lead standards, and many other requirements, of health protection requirements, or basic environmental laws.

So, we’re extremely concerned that a huge cut in the EPA’s enforcement budget, a huge cut in the EPA’s drinking water program, really could have long term, serious adverse effects on public health, and on our environment.

SHARMINI PERIES: And, Erik, finally, what are the hot spots you’ve found, as far as lead poisoning, in the water across the U.S.?

ERIK D. OLSON: Well, there’s another location that’s very similar to Flint’s, unfortunately. It’s called East Chicago. It’s right across the border from Chicago. It’s in Indiana. And the EPA found they have a systemic problem with lead contamination in their drinking water.

We, about a week or two ago, petitioned the EPA to take an emergency action to clean up the drinking water in East Chicago, Indiana. Haven’t heard back from them yet, and we’re very worried that a lot of other communities like this, that may have problems, are not going to be addressed at all if we chop the EPA’s budget to the point that they’re a skeleton crew, and can’t do their job.

SHARMINI PERIES: Right. All right. I’ve been speaking with Erik D. Olson. He’s the Director of Health Programs at the Natural Resource Defense Council. Erik’s got a report out on lead poisoning in our water systems.

Erik, I thank you so much for joining us, and I urge everybody to go and read this report and be more conscious of what’s happening to your water supply. I thank you, Erik.

ERIK D. OLSON: Thank you, and I would urge your watchers to check nrdc.org and you can find that report right there.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Thank you. And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.

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