Because of its toxicity and resilience, lead is not an easy chemical to clean up once it has contaminated an area. Cleanup efforts for widespread lead contamination are hard to organize, expensive, and disruptive, thus are often relegated to regions where an acute catastrophe has forced the issue into the public eye (e.g. Flint).
From a purely technical standpoint, reducing lead contamination is fairly simple:
- Bans on lead paint prevent people from coating their walls in toxic chemicals in the future and existing lead paint can be stripped off of walls and safely disposed of.
- Lead pipes can be removed and replaced from all public water resources (e.g. water mains) while free testing lets homeowners determine if they need to replace their plumbing system. If lead is found in a household’s plumbing, subsidies could be provided to help them afford the transition.
- Land that is suspected to have dangerously high levels of lead can be tested. If the lead levels are high, existing residents can be moved off of the land (e.g. through incentives) while future developments are stopped.
Unfortunately, while these policies are mechanically simple, they are logistically and politically extremely hard to implement. For example: Replacing an entire nation’s water system to eliminate lead contamination costs billions of dollars and would disrupt water service to millions of households during construction. Relocating neighborhoods that are built upon dangerous levels of lead (e.g. East Chicago) is extremely controversial and would often displace the very poorest, who have nowhere else to go.
In addition to the complications inherent to each of the lead-reduction strategies, there are funding and organizational issues that must be dealt with. Local lead crises are often simply too large and expensive to deal with on a local level—Flint is a perfect example of this—thus solutions must be funded by state or federal entities. This means that there needs to be a significant amount of coordination between neighborhood, city, state and federal stakeholders, oftentimes where there are few existing channels for communication (e.g. the residents of Flint have no direct communication with the EPA leaders). Further complicating this situation, is the issue that many Americans don’t want to pay for another person’s crisis, thus they oppose spending the billions of taxpayer dollars that would be required to address lead contamination in areas they don’t care about (often low-income urban neighborhoods).
In short, the experts know exactly what must be done to greatly reduce the danger of lead contamination, but our leaders have refused to implement these solutions due to cost, political concerns, a lack of motivation and ignorance of the problem. Fortunately, these are all impediments that the American public can address.
We must get informed on the threat of lead contamination and ensure that our public officials know that we want this issue addressed; we must demand proper funding for lead-reduction programs, starting with a complete overhaul of the drinking water infrastructure in the United States; and we must ensure that those who are the hardest hit by this crisis, yet least able to address it (e.g. poor Flint and East Chicago residents) are not the only ones demanding change.