Flint Was a Wake Up Call. Now What? Framing the Conversation around Lead, Water and Public Health
January 29, 2018
WASHINGTON —In late 2014, Yaquelin Vargas became suspicious something was wrong with the water in her hometown of Flint, Mich. She was getting rashes and losing her hair. The shower water felt “like a gooey gel” on her skin. Soon after, she found out that she was pregnant.
After Vargas’ baby was born she began breast-feeding, unaware she was passing lead into her child’s system.
When she finally learned about the dangerous levels of lead in the city’s water, “I felt like I had poisoned my own daughter,” she said during the panel discussion, with her daughter in the audience. “By the time they finally confirmed that something was wrong with the water, mothers like me and the rest of the community felt so angry. We knew it was time to reach even more people.”
“I have seen remarkable transformations in this field,” said Lynn Goldman, Michael and Lori Milken Dean of the Milken Institute School of Public Health. “But what we’ve learned from Flint is that we need to look at our policies and think holistically on a solution.”
Lead-based paint is still the most common source of lead exposure but Amanda Reddy, executive director of the National Center for Healthy Housing, said public health officials need to start looking at lead exposure “more holistically.”
“The Flint situation has taught a lot of us in the public health community to think differently,” Reddy said.
Tom Neltner, the chemicals policy director at the Environmental Defense Fund, said lead sources should be more thoroughly researched across the public health community.
In the past “we assumed [lead exposure] was all from lead paint,” he said. “We have learned the hard way that water is a source of lead exposure and there are other sources as well. Now that we know, we can do better to serve the community.”
“It starts with policy at the highest level and also filters down to the local level.”
The panelists discussed one such effort: the Lead Service Line Replacement Collaborative a group of 25 national organizations pushing to replace lead service lines — the largest source of lead in drinking water — across the country.
“We need to make the replacement of service lines and water mains affordable for homeowners and the overall community,” said Cathy Bailey, executive director of the Greater Cincinnati Water Works. “As the water utility, we started the conversation in our city because we had a big stake and we realized that we couldn’t do it alone.”
Panel participants also said the 1991 Lead and Copper Rule, which dictates how communities test for lead in drinking water, has not been revised in more than a decade and needs to be updated.
“It starts with policy at the highest level and also filters down to the local level,” said Jean Shultz, environmental and disease control specialist at the Milwaukee Department of Public Health.
The panelists agreed Flint was a wake-up call to the public health community, and discussed how to continue tackling the issue together.
“Public pressure put Flint in the spotlight, and it made a difference [because] now we’re all talking about it,” said Nsedu Witherspoon, executive director of the Children’s Environmental Health Network. “But there was also a missed opportunity. Going forward, how do we address the lead exposure in a meaningful way? Hopefully, 10 years from now we won’t be having this discussion.”
If you weren’t able attend the panel in person or via livestream, check out a recording of the event here.
Citation for this content: MPH@GW, the online MPH program from the Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University