When Policy Poisons Our Children

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Running Tap WaterBy now, you have probably heard about the water crisis going on in Flint, Michigan, where the city switched to a cheaper but more corrosive, lead-leaching water supply in 2014. This has resulted in estimates that as many as 12,000 children have elevated levels of lead in their blood. You may not have heard, however, that this lead poisoning crisis is not just in Flint. There are children testing positive for elevated levels of lead in their blood in a number of places, including Jefferson Parish, Louisiana; Tyler County, West Virginia; and Dubois County, Indiana. More than half of children tested Houston County, Alabama, were revealed to have lead poisoning.

Lead poisoning has serious consequences for young children. Children are particularly susceptible to lead toxicity and may absorb four to five times as much lead as an adult does. This lead exposure can lead to coma and even death by attacking the brain and central nervous system. In less severe cases, lead poisoning can produce a multitude of symptoms across body systems, including impacts on the child’s brain development, behavioral difficulties, anemia, hypertension, renal impairment, and immunotoxicity. Additionally, lead absorbed as a child is stored in the teeth and bones and can be remobilized during pregnancy, thus exposing the fetus.3 This means that lead poisoning can be a multigenerational problem.

In the case of Flint, the decision to switch from treated water from Detroit to the more corrosive water sourced from the Flint River was a financial one. The city estimated that it would save $19 million over the course of 8 years by treating water from the Flint River. However, the long-term public health response to the lead poisoning in Flint is estimated to cost up to $100 million over the next 10–15 years, with an additional estimated $1.5 billion to fix the infrastructure of the water supply in Flint. How’s that for cost savings?

These potential policy responses in Flint include expansions of federal programs like Head Start early childhood education centers and expanded eligibility of Medicaid to all Flint children under 21 years of age, in addition to local policy efforts to improve the diets of the affected children. Unfortunately, Flint is a food desert, with no large grocery store in the city limits, so getting the calcium, iron, and vitamin C-rich foods that could minimize the amount of lead that these children’s bodies absorb would be difficult.

Given that the Flint water crisis is making national headlines right now, the city may receive some or all of these improvements to battle the damage inflicted on residents by the lead contaminated water. But what about the other places where children are testing positive for lead poisoning? Who will shine a spotlight on the policy failures in places like Jefferson Parish, Tyler County, Dubois County, and Houston County?

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