The situation in Flint, Michigan is an outrage. Residents there have been drinking water contaminated with lead, the result of incompetent city management, poor regulation and a long legacy of industrial pollution. Flint might seem an anomalous failure to protect the environment and the people living within it. But I suspect that the problem is, in fact, much larger than Flint.
The major scandal began after city managers, appointed by Michigan’s governor, decided to switch the source of Flint’s drinking water from Detroit’s water system to the Flint River. The river water’s corrosiveness — a result of pollution — wears down on the lead in pipes that transport water into Flint homes. When a child drinks that water, the lead can cause a battery of neurological problems that will affect her for the rest of her life. All because of the wild imprudence of those in power.
Upon learning about Flint, I wanted to know how the scourge of lead poisoning might persist closer to home, here in New Haven. City residents aren’t necessarily exposed to lead through drinking water. In an article in the News (“What’s in your water?”, Feb. 17, 2010), then-South Central Connecticut water quality supervisor Tom Barger claimed that, “absolutely,” water in New Haven is safe from lead contamination. But in New Haven, and throughout much of the country, leaded paint may be a more significant source of lead poisoning.
Since most of New Haven’s houses were built before lead-based paint was banned from residential use in 1978, many families still live in homes where exposure can have dire consequences. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 24 million homes in the U.S. have walls covered in leaded paint, and four million of them house families with small children. Poorer children are more likely to live in older homes, and thus they’re at greatest risk for poisoning.
Unlike Flint, New Haven sought to do something about its predicament. In the summer of 2014, the city and the Environmental Protection Agency partnered to investigate whether home renovators and contractors were complying with the Toxic Substances Control Act, the nation’s flagship toxic chemical regulation law. The law requires that workers be trained to renovate homes in such a way that minimizes the possibility of lead exposure. Though the EPA claimed this intervention would better prepare companies to keep their customers safe, compliance was originally only spotty at best.
Passed in 1976, TSCA has since been criticized on numerous occasions for being too weak. Because the law stipulates that only the (underfunded, overstretched) EPA must prove that a chemical is harmful, and not the companies producing it, few chemicals have actually been regulated. Of the 80,000 or so chemicals in the marketplace, only 200 have been tested for their effects on human health and the environment. And though the EPA has employed TSCA to prevent lead exposure in New Haven, the small intervention falls short of the systemic approach the agency needs to make any real impact.
Flint has been a wake-up call in realizing how ineffective laws like TSCA are in preventing human exposure to hazardous substances. The crisis might also alert us to the great number of toxic substances that aren’t regulated at all. In a few months, maybe years, the crisis in Flint will be the stuff of history, and the brown water flowing from its tap will be a potent symbol of political incompetence, poor disaster response and egregious pollution. The children there who consumed lead-poisoned water will grow older, dogged by persistent neurological disorders. And without action, the rules that allow undue exposure — as in drinking water, our homes, or outdoors — might persis as well.
As a new iteration of TSCA — in the form of a chemical safety law, passed independently by the House and Senate in December — is hashed out, Flint underscores the importance of federal legislation by illustrating the grave injustices of a system where chemical safety is insubstantial. This crisis is a national concern. We must demand comprehensive federal legislation that deals safely with toxic substances — TSCA reform services as an opportunity to demand it.
Austin Bryniarski is a senior in Calhoun College. His column runs on alternate Fridays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .