Over 2,000 Cities with Higher Lead Levels than Flint

Baltimore, Milwaukee, Chicago and Cleveland all have been victim to high lead and other toxins in the water. Eddie Conway and Eugene Puryear discuss the frustrations of citizens and the struggles to get clean water in communities of color

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Story Transcript

EDDIE CONWAY: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Eddie Conway, coming to you from Baltimore.

Recently, I have been going around the country looking at the Flint water crisis, and to do a follow up on that to find out what’s happening in other cities beyond Flint in reference to water, including Baltimore. I have joining me now radio talk show host, community activist Eugene Puryear. Eugene, thanks for joining me.

EUGENE PURYEAR: Thanks for having me, Eddie. I really appreciate it.

EDDIE CONWAY: Can you give us an overview of what’s happening with the water systems in other cities, as well as Flint?

EUGENE PURYEAR: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it’s pretty stunning, when you look at it. Many people forget, but shortly after the Flint crisis broke, USA Today actually did a study and found over 2000 localities that had low levels of lead in the water that were actually higher than Flint. That was in early 2017 they did that study. Reuters did subsequently, later in that year, did a similar study where they looked at about 3000 census tracks- they actually looked at more than that, but they found about 3000 census tracks around the country that also had higher lead levels in water, and also in terms of the lead blood level than what we were finding of people in Flint.

And I think when we look at the places where it’s the worst, we’re finding it’s either inner cities, quote-unquote, in places like Milwaukee has a huge issue, Chicago, Baltimore, Cleveland. But also a number of sort of rural areas and smaller towns. And I think the common denominator between all those are places where there’s either deliberate disinvestment or because there is just not as much going on there in terms of the economy, people with wealth, and so on and so forth. There has also been disinvestment in the infrastructure.

So it’s an interesting mix of the two. But you see all sorts of things. Baltimore, for instance, where you’re recording this from, many people noted that Freddie Gray was someone who had suffered from having a lot of lead in his blood. Well, in the census tracts surrounding the area where he’s from it is very routine to see 25, 30, 40, 50 percent of people who have these high, what are known as elevated blood levels, according to the EPA standards in terms of what is going on there in water. And in fact, Baltimore was a city where- maybe not the only city, but one where there was reporting done on this by the Guardian and others where the elevated lead levels seemed to be multigenerational, which gives people a sense of how long these problems have been going on.

But you look at even major rich wealthy cities, like Chicago is currently in the process of trying to replace all of the main trunk water lines because they are so polluted with water. Now, the trick is is that then there’s also the lines that go from the streets, from the main line, to your house. Many of those are also lead, but you can’t get those replaced by the city. You have to pay for them yourself. So essentially, for those who are lower-income people, they’re being consigned in Chicago to having poisoned water, while wealthier individuals are having their water replaced. But I think we’re seeing quite a bit- there’s one school I found in upstate New York where they had one water fountain where there was 200 percent higher levels of lead in the water than what the EPA action level is. So I mean, it really is an epidemic around the country.

EDDIE CONWAY: Well, tell me, I heard you mention Milwaukee. What’s the situation in Milwaukee?

EUGENE PURYEAR: Milwaukee is a similar issue with Chicago, where they have all these main trunk lines that are made out of lead. And so they’re going back now, trying to ultimately suppress it. When they did the study in Milwaukee, I think it was about 11 and a half percent of the city overall where children tested for having elevated blood levels. But then when you look more on the north side of Milwaukee, which is the more heavily African-American area of the city; if people remember the uprising that happened a couple years ago, that was up there in the north side. Then you start to see similar to places like Baltimore and Cleveland the 40 to 50 percent of people, young people that they’re testing here who have elevated levels of lead in the blood.

So it’s very significant, what we’re seeing here in many of these areas, in many of these communities. And Milwaukee is one of the most major, I think. There’s apparently a number of organizing efforts going on around this issue to replace all these lead pipes. They’re replacing some, not all. There’s also the issue of the trunk lines, as well as the lines that lead to the, to the homes, as well. But Milwaukee for sure, especially on the north side, heavily victimized by that.

And I really do think that that is really- the tale of the tape here is that it’s the areas where there are the largest conglomerations of low-income people, which oftentimes means black and brown people, and then also rural areas where these things are happening. So it really is sort of a divide based on class and race for a lot of these problems, as well, the millions of people affected by them.

EDDIE CONWAY: OK. I understand that obviously in places where there’s wealth, people can afford to have those lines from their house to the trunk line, they can afford to have those things replaced, because they have the wealth to do that. What’s the responsibility of cities, municipalities, to do that can of replacement for people that are in poverty, low-income people, and so on? What’s the responsibility? These cities, as far as I can tell, spending half of a billion dollars sometimes building stadiums, and building all kinds of infrastructure, tourist kind of projects, and not taking care of the water that’s affecting the children. What’s the problem there?

EUGENE PURYEAR: You know, I think it’s just pure avarice and greed on the part of these politicians, because they’re really there to protect the interest of capital, the rich donors. I mean, you know, you look at Chicago, it’ one of the richest cities on earth. Mayor Rahm Emanuel does everything possible to attract all these big businesses. They want to give billions of dollars in tax breaks to Amazon. So it’s not an issue of the money; it’s an issue of the political will, the will to actually tax those- we’re in the richest country in the history of countries. And if you look at what the American Society of Civil Engineers have put out in terms of water infrastructure and what the country nationwide would need to do, we’re about $975 billion short of what we would need to do to make sure that all of our water is safe from these different lead issues.

But you know, that’s almost nothing. I mean,$975 billion. The Pentagon budget is- just the budget they tell you- $717 billion. We’re spending a trillion dollars over a number of years to revamp the entire nuclear weapons are. You know, you can’t even get a hearing in this country when you talk about a half a percent tax on every Wall Street transaction that could raise billions of dollars that could be put on this. A 1 percent increase in those who make money over a million dollars. All you hear is tax cuts, tax cuts, tax cuts.

But I think your, your question is heading in the right direction. What is the responsibility of society to make sure that people are not being poisoned? There is no safe level of lead to have in your water. There are EPA and state action levels where they’re sort of saying, well, we think below this level, more or less, it’s not going to be that bad. But really, any lead that gets in your bloodstream, especially for the young, especially for infants, can be extremely harmful, can cause all sorts of major issues in terms of mental and brain development as young people try to grow. So really, doesn’t society have a responsibility to spend the money it takes to avoid, you know, really mass poisoning of millions of people? But because the super rich who can afford to avoid this problem, if they want, you know, most of these people with these billion dollars, all this kind of stuff, could have fresh water flown in from Fiji every day, if that’s what they wanted to do. But even, you know, to the point of having their own water systems to replace water infrastructure, they can wall themselves off from this problem. And because the politicians don’t have the political will in many of these cities and many of these states, and certainly not on the national level, to demand that people put up their fair share to keep millions of people from being poisoned. That’s why we’re left with this problem. It’s not a problem that we have to have. It’s a problem that we are stuck with because we don’t have the type of political system that is willing to actually invest in what needs to happen to have safe infrastructure here as it comes to water.

EDDIE CONWAY: You know, earlier you mentioned that there was a couple thousand cases and several thousand census track cases where lead elevation is high. And and you rightly so say it’s poisoning, and of course it’s poisoning. But this also concerns me that down the line, five years, ten years from now you’ll have people with mental health problems, you’ll have people with all sorts of physical ailments. And you’ll have a potential situation in which you have violence as a result of this. So looking out, looking forward 10-15 years from now, is this environmental genocide? Is this economic genocide? I mean, what is this?

EUGENE PURYEAR: Well, I mean, it’s certainly a massive crime. I mean, I would call it a crime against humanity, in many ways. I mean, people have to understand that lead is, in water, a neurotoxin. And so especially for young people it can have a serious impact on your brain development, and it can be, you know, things as small as affecting attention span and things like that, to much more serious developmental defects.

So yeah, you look five, ten years down the line, there are a lot of people who could be having serious challenges, whether it’s just, you know, basic stuff like paying attention in class- which is something obviously you can get in other ways, but making it more difficult to learn- to much more serious learning and developmental disabilities. These are the types of things that can develop because of this. And I think that when we look at the multigenerational reality of this, we’re not even understanding how some of these days that are coming from potential lead poisoning, partial lead poisoning, are playing out in terms of, you know, how parents are transmitting certain behaviors to their children, as well. And I mean, just- be that as it may, I think the right to clean water, when water is one of the most important substances you have to have in your body, should be basic and de rigeur.

So I think this is a huge health crisis. I think it really is a massive crime that this country doesn’t- but it has all of the ability in the world to do so- doesn’t want to address this issue.

EDDIE CONWAY: Yes. And from just my going to Flint and observing what happened there at Flint, this seemed to be a government-produced crisis. It seems that the government made a conscious decision to switch out the water sources, and to put in poor-quality water sources that eventually eroded the trunk lines, as well as the house lines, deliberately to save money. But also it directed it to the most, the poorest community. Benton Harbor, or Flint, and surrounding areas that were poor communities of color. This, this was intentional. And so what concerns me is not that the government need to fix it, but what do we do about a government that creates it? They created a crisis and we are suffering the consequences, or people are suffering the consequences. And they’re they’re getting a smack on the wrist, and they’ll continue to create additional crisis. How do we deal with that?

EUGENE PURYEAR: Yeah, I think that’s a great question. I mean, I think it speaks to the fact that we need a whole new social system in this country. I think you’re exactly right. Not only was it deliberate, but I think their attitude was- and this is similar to the environmental racism we frequently see, whether it’s incinerators, switching stations and the like, that they just don’t think anyone’s going to care. They’re just a bunch of poor black people, or a bunch of poor brown people, or a Native American reservation, or quite frankly, even a bunch of poor white people, like who’s really going to care about these people about their health, or whatever?

And we need a system where, you know, the needs of people are prioritized over the needs of profit; where for the cutting of corners, people aren’t looking for what is the easiest way to dump some problem on someone that no one cares about just so we can save a dollar here or there, but where we think how do we keep everyone safe, and how do we keep everyone, you know, living the best and the healthiest life they can? And I don’t think that’s going to happen under this sort of capitalist American system. And I think we really need to rethink not just the politicians we put in place, but the sort of deeper systemic realities that lead politicians to make these sorts of decisions like they did in Flint.

EDDIE CONWAY: OK. Thank you. That’s the last word on that. Thank you for joining me.

EUGENE PURYEAR: Thank you so much for having me.

EDDIE CONWAY: OK. I look forward to seeing you again in the near future.

EUGENE PURYEAR: Absolutely. Hopeing for it myself, and looking forward to it.

EDDIE CONWAY: OK. And thank you for joining The Real News.