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Bottled water "has actually become a long-term solution" in Baltimore public schools after testing showed elevated lead levels, NPR reported this week. (Photo: Keoni Cabral/flickr/cc)

All Eyes on Flint, but Drinking Water Crisis Stretches Nationwide

USA Today investigation finds 350 schools and day-care centers failed lead tests a total of about 470 times from 2012 through 2015

Deirdre Fulton

While a congressional hearing Thursday focused attention on the drinking water crisis in Flint, Michigan, news reporting from around the country reveals that the problem of lead-contamination afflicts communities nationwide.

A multi-part USA Today investigation published this week identified almost 2,000 additional water systems in all 50 states where testing has shown excessive levels of lead contamination over the past four years. "The water systems, which reported lead levels exceeding Environmental Protection Agency [EPA] standards, collectively supply water to 6 million people," according to reporters Alison Young and Mark Nichols.

The series installment released Thursday details hundreds of educational facilities across the nation "where children were exposed to water containing excessive amounts of an element doctors agree is unsafe at any level."

According to the paper's analysis of EPA data, about 350 schools and day-care centers failed lead tests a total of about 470 times from 2012 through 2015.

Indeed, NPR ran a story on Wednesday on how "[b]ottled water has actually become a long-term solution in Baltimore," where elevated lead levels were discovered in scores of schools in 1992. After years of trying to fix the problem, NPR reported, "in 2007, the entire school district switched to bottled water."

A similar "solution" has been in place for two years at an elementary school outside of Fresno, according to California's Desert Sun on Wednesday.

Common Dreams wrote last week about how public schools in Newark, New Jersey, were forced to shut off drinking fountains after test results showed high levels of lead in the water supply; says similar tests have uncovered lead in water lines at Morristown Medical Center, as well as supplies overseen by the Passaic Valley Water Commission, which brings water to towns across five North Jersey counties.

"We need to do a better job of testing throughout the state and fixing these problems," said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, earlier this month. "We can't allow our children to be put at risk."

Data analyzed after the Flint story broke showed that that lead exposure "is a pervasive issue in the United States," Sarah Frostenson wrote for Vox at the time. "In some places outside of Flint," she said, "more than half of children test positive for lead poisoning."

Meanwhile, the Guardian reported Thursday on "startlingly elevated" levels of lead in Jackson, Mississippi's drinking water.

"As with Flint," the Guardian noted, "the problem in Jackson appears to be related to inadequate corrosion control, and the months of delay in state action raises shades of Flint, something that Michigan governor Rick Snyder will testify on before a congressional committee on Thursday."

The story continued:

An astonishing 22% of homes in Jackson, Mississippi, exceeded the federal “action” lead level of 15 parts per billion, according to government tests done in June. Compare that with Flint, where researchers from Virginia Tech sampled hundreds of homes as residents begged for help and found 16.7% of homes exceeded the federal “action” lead level, though the sampling methodology may be different in the two cases.

But Mississippi officials did not notify the city of Jackson of the results until January, and it was not until February that the state issued a warning for pregnant women and small children. A sampling of 101 homes in January and February this year showed 11% of homes above the federal lead limit – a number that is still worrisome, under federal regulations.

The residents of Jackson are stunned.

Another similarity between Flint and Jackson is that both are majority-black cities. As Andrew Subica, assistant professor of social medicine and population health at UC Riverside, warned soon after the Flint crisis came to light: "Unfortunately, research suggests this water crisis is not an isolated incident of poor public policies endangering the health of residents living in economically distressed communities."

And while the people in Flint and Jackson are served by public water systems, those who draw water from private wells aren't much better off, Reuters recently found.

"Across the country, millions of Americans served by private wells drink, bathe and cook with water containing potentially dangerous amounts of lead," the news agency wrote last week, basing its assertion on reporting and recent university studies.

All this serves to support USA Today's thesis that across water systems big and small, "limited and inconsistent testing means the full scope of the lead contamination problem could be even more widespread. People in thousands more communities served by water systems that have been deemed in compliance with the EPA's lead rules have no assurance their drinking water is safe from the brain-damaging toxin."

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