Last night's CNN Democratic Presidential Debate took place in Flint, Michigan, focusing the national spotlight on the inexcusable and entirely avoidable water crisis that has terrorized the city and jeopardized the health of thousands of its citizens. The crisis in Flint has also revealed how widespread and ongoing the risk of lead exposure is for other parts of the country, including NYC.
Flint, like so many other former industrial cities, has been decimated by the loss of manufacturing jobs over the last forty years and about 40% of its residents live in poverty. Decades of (white) population loss eroded the city's tax base and left behind a minority-majority city with severe financial difficulties, prompting the state of Michigan to take emergency control of the city in 2011. This arrangement circumvented the mayor and city council entirely, which has gotten lost in some of the media coverage. One of the ways the emergency manager, Darnell Earley, found to save money was to stop buying water from Detroit and join a new water system being built using Lake Huron water. That system wasn't built yet, so he turned to treating water from Flint River in the meantime.
The river water was so polluted and corrosive that it started to peel off pieces of the lead pipes serving the city, causing the water supply to reach dangerously high levels of lead (while also containing many other pollutants). In some cases, the level of lead in children's blood doubled. I can't state just how tragic this is. Exposure to high levels of lead can permanently damage a child's brain and prevent cognitive development. Some estimates show that 8,000 children were drinking contaminated water for months in Flint.
What is so damning, and so unforgivable about this is that the city failed to properly treat the water and the state failed to test it. It took months of residents complaining about the color and taste of the water - all while officials claimed the water was perfectly safe - before anyone did anything about it. The state was sending its employees in Flint bottled water while they downplayed the risk publicly. Though the water system has been shifted back to Detroit, the damage in Flint is forever.
It also took months for the national media to start paying attention as well. Now that it does, we have started to see stories in other states about lead levels and, disturbingly, many other cities and towns appear to have even higher levels than Flint. New York City is no different.
Lead is everywhere in New York City - in the soil as a legacy of its heavy industrial past, in the paint of many older buildings prior to being banned in 1960, and in the water pipes of many buildings and houses prior to being banned in 1961. It is an unfortunate fact of life, but one that the our city has faced with significant success over all. In 1971 2,600 young children were hospitalized for lead poisoning, but by 2012 only 5 were.
Much of this success is based on the creation of strong agencies within the the city and the state that monitor our water supply, soil, and buildings. Whether its the city's Department of Environmental Protection, Department of Housing Preservation and Development, or Department of Health, or the state's Department of Health, or Department of Environmental Conservation, we have a lot of people paying close attention to lead levels where we work, live, and play.
But that doesn't mean the problem no longer exists (see first map). Indeed, it is not going away anytime soon since so much of the soil is polluted and so many buildings and pipes in the city pre-date the banning of lead. Naturally, the risk of exposure is much worse for poorer New Yorkers. In 2012, almost 1,000 children tested positive for lead poisoning. 80% of those were minorities from poor neighborhoods.
The biggest source of lead exposure in these cases is almost certainly lead paint. Sadly, as I wrote about in a previous post, the underfunding for public housing appears to be having a disproportionally large affect on this issue. NYCHA buildings, most of which were built before the lead bans were in place, have layers upon layers of lead paint that can take months to remove even after an inspection is made. There are scores of outstanding removal projects, some dating back several years. With billions of dollars in operating and capital needs, removing all the lead paint from thousands of apartments appears to be a sadly elusive goal when compared to the litany of outstanding issues.
We can look tearfully towards what has been happening in Flint and rest assured that New York City does not face the same challenges. But we can't ignore that many New Yorkers, most of them young and poor, still face a high risk of lead exposure - a risk that is entirely avoidable if we give the institutions already in place the resources and attention that they deserve.