In 2014, Flint, Michigan became a national title. After the city began supplying residents with water from the Flint River, families and businesses began noticing that the water from their faucets looked, smelled and tasted contaminated, but the city claimed that she was sure. A study conducted the following year by Virginia Tech researchers revealed the problem: Citywide lead levels had hit record highs, with nearly 17% of samples recorded above the federal “action level”; more than 40% measured at the level of “very serious” problem. By then, tens of thousands of Flint residents had already been exposed to dangerous levels of lead, and Legionnaires’ disease outbreakswhich can be caused by waterborne bacteria, had sickened – and tragically killed – more than a dozen members of the community.
Today, lead levels in Flint are below the federal action level, but thousands of Flint residents continue to get their water supplies from lead pipes. And it’s not just Flint — 10 million American homes and 400,000 schools and child care centers lack drinking water.
Massachusetts is no exception. the The Environmental Protection Agency reports that approximately 3,200 service lines in the town of Malden — 25% of all its pipes — contain lead.
While there are significant differences in how water distribution is handled in Massachusetts that sets Malden apart from Flint, the fact remains that Flint, Malden, and cities and towns across the country are faced with decades of underfunded water infrastructure. According to a 2017 report by the Massachusetts State Auditor, the state has approximately 220,000 lead service lines (more than half of 43,000 taps tested found lead in school drinking water) and unmet spending needs estimated at $17.8 billion on water infrastructure.
President Biden recently signed into law the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which contains the nation’s largest investment in U.S. infrastructure in a generation. It is investing $55 billion in water supply infrastructure, eliminating all lead utility lines in America, and setting the nation on a path to ensure everyone in America has access to safe drinking water everywhere – at work, at home and at school.
It’s not just about the taste and appearance of the water you drink: lead can cause irreversible and permanent health problems, including decreased concentration and academic achievement. For children and youth, exposure to lead can derail their entire educational trajectory and life.
Access to clean water is a health issue, but it is also a racial and environmental justice issue. Lead poisoning is higher among black Americans and in tribal nations than among white Americans, and higher in inner cities and among low-income families due to systemic racism within urban planning. Since 1976, federal investments in drinking water infrastructure steadily declined. As a result, local municipalities and states must bear the cost of necessary maintenance, repairs and additional investments. It is often the environmental justice communities that are unable to fund the infrastructure improvements needed to provide safe drinking water.
As our nation strives to build back better after the coronavirus pandemic and to ensure that every American has a chance to succeed, ensuring that each of us has access to clean, lead-free water is non-negotiable. Water is not a luxury. It is a basic necessity to sustain life, and it should be treated as such.
Biden signed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, and funding to upgrade, upgrade and strengthen our lead pipe infrastructure is already on its way to municipalities and tribal nations across the country. From Flint to Malden, Americans will turn on their taps for clean, clear, drinkable water, and that’s something to celebrate.
U.S. Representative Katherine Clark of Massachusetts is the Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives. Malden Community Organization for Racial Equity (MaldenCORE) is a volunteer-run group in Malden dedicated to eliminating racism in our public schools and community. Clean water action works to protect the environment, health, economic well-being and quality of life of the community.