Study Reveals 3,000 Neighborhoods Across U.S. Have Higher Lead Levels Than Flint

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The top of the Flint Water Plant tower is seen in Flint, Michigan. Photo by REUTERS/Rebecca Cook/Files
The top of the Flint Water Plant tower is seen in Flint, Michigan. Photo by REUTERS/Rebecca Cook/Files

It looks like Flint, Michigan, isn’t the only U.S. city experiencing a lead-contamination crisis. In fact, a new investigative report suggests that there are thousands of communities across the nation with lead levels twice as high as those found in Flint — and residents aren’t even aware of it.

The study, conducted by Reuters, identified close to 3,000 areas in the U.S. with much higher lead levels than the Michigan city, which suffered a crippling water crisis when officials switched the water system and began sourcing water from the highly contaminated Flint River in 2014, causing lead from aging pipes to leach into the water supply.

Residents there have suffered a number of health issues over the past two years and are still forced to rely on bottled water and/or home water filters for daily tasks like cooking and bathing. A report issued by Michigan’s State Department of Health and Human Services in June revealed that 3.4 percent of the state’s youngest residents tested for lead poisoning had higher-than-normal levels of the metal — which the CDC thresholds at 5 micrograms per deciliter or higher — in their bloodstreams in 2015.

Residents in certain pockets of the country haven’t fared much better, according to Reuter’s new report. The study revealed that more than 1,100 of the 3,000 communities found to have double the lead-poisoning rates of those recorded at the peak of Flint’s water crisis also had rates of elevated blood-lead tests that were roughly four times higher than those found in the Michigan city. Some of those communities included Warren, Pennsylvania, a city where 36 percent of youths tested had higher-than-normal blood-lead levels; an area of Goat Island, Texas, where nearly a quarter of blood tests showed lead poisoning; and small areas throughout Baltimore, Cleveland and Philadelphia, Reuters reported.

The news organization used previously compiled data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from 21 states over the past decade for its analysis and uncovered 2,606 census tracts and another 278 ZIP code areas with a prevalence of lead two times higher than Flint’s. The study noted that many of these neighborhoods are plagued by “legacy lead” left behind by deteriorating lead paint and industrial waste, among other things.

Not only is the increased presence of lead a mounting concern but also the variety of health issues caused by prolonged exposure to the metal. According to the World Health Organization, high levels of lead in the body can lead to neurological issues, coma due to attacks on the central nervous system and even death. The study mentioned that children exposed to the smallest amounts of lead may also suffer a reduced IQ and stunted growth and development. These risks become even more concerning in areas where kids go untested for lead poisoning.

“The disparities [Reuters] found between different areas have stark implications,” said Dr. Helen Egger, chair of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at NYU Langone Medical Center’s Child Study Center. “Where lead poisoning remains common, many children will have developmental delays and start out behind all the rest.”

Though the public remains largely unaware of communities besides Flint that are suffering a lead-contamination crisis, the report noted that there’s not much federal help available for communities whose lead issues are known. After two long years, Congress only recently approved a $170 million bill that would provide funding to repair the Michigan city’s lead-stricken water system. That amount is almost 10 times the CDC’s annual budget for assisting states with lead poisoning, according to the report.

“I hope this data spurs questions from the public to community leaders who can make changes,” epidemiologist Robert Walker, co-chair of the CDC’s Lead Content Work Group, told Reuters. “I would think that it would turn some heads.”

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