State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


The Importance of Regulating Lead in Drinking Water

Steven Cohen, August 11, 2015 Photo by Bruce Gilbert
Read more from Executive Director Steven Cohen at the Huffington Post.

New York City’s drinking water is among the best in the world, but the high quality of water delivered to some of our buildings may become contaminated within them. Many of our buildings are decades old, some from the 19th century, and they contain decaying pipes and fixtures that may have toxics accumulating in them. These toxics can be difficult to measure, as we learned in a recent set of tests in New York City’s school buildings. When the water was tested last year, very little lead was found and most of the water met EPA standards. But the typical method of testing for lead was to first run the water for two hours through the system and then test for lead. Some experts believed this could “water down” the results and the city agreed to run the tests without flushing the system first. About one third of the schools have now been tested and according to a report filed last week by Kate Taylor of the New York Times:

“So far, the latest tests have found nine times as many water outlets — kitchen sinks, water fountains, classroom faucets or other sources — with lead levels above the Environmental Protection Agency’s “action level” of 15 parts per billion as last year’s tests found, according to a report released by the state health department last week. And in some schools where the earlier tests detected problems, the lead levels identified by the new tests were much worse.”

Last year, graduate students I advised in Columbia’s MPA program in Environmental Science and Policy conducted a management simulation of a proposed program to address the nation’s lead pollution crisis. Their research taught me that the health effect of lead in water was far worse for children than for adults and that lead could affect the development of a child’s central nervous system and lead to declining IQs over time. The fact that some of the worst lead pollution takes place in older schools in poorer neighborhoods makes this at first glance a serious issue of environmental justice. But it’s not just a problem for poor people; many New Yorkers live in old buildings that likely have old pipes and water systems, and given the pace of gentrification, we might well find lead contamination in some of the city’s high rent districts as well.

Our modern economy produces many goods that have toxic byproducts. Some of these substances persist because they are designed to resist biodegradation. We enjoy the benefits of these plastics, computer screens, appliances and other gizmos and rarely consider potential negative impacts.

I realize that in today’s U.S. congress a call for testing and developing regulatory standards for new household toxics is politically dead on arrival. The Tea Party believes that all of this care and concern about environmental and human impact is simply more red tape that stops entrepreneurs from starting businesses and creating jobs. Since this will be the accepted truth for the foreseeable future, let’s question the premise. All organizations know they must adhere to certain “rules of the game”. Building codes, occupational health and safety regulations, labor laws, and accounting rules. The best businesses know they must treat customers honestly and fairly. Honesty and fairness are not rules, but what we might call best practices. If you don’t commit fraud, the law permits you to treat your customers dishonestly and unfairly. For example: Perhaps a chain of exercise clubs just doesn’t emphasize that when a customer ends a gym contract ahead of time the customer is charged a penalty. Perhaps a cell phone firm doesn’t explain to customers that the low-priced data plan they are selling doesn’t provide enough data to last through the month. These firms are not breaking the law, so “let the buyer beware…”

But in today’s social media saturated marketplace, information about bad business practices is only a click away. Small businesses and large businesses, not to mention large universities, know they operate in an observed world and every step they take is capable of becoming a public issue. Every phrase an organization’s leader speaks could go viral and be heard by millions. So regulation, or what we might call a guide to good behavior, may well be a small businessperson’s friend in a complex environment. The local landlord with two small buildings wants to make sure he or she is providing safe water, and how can they do that if the U.S. EPA has not issued a standard definition of what that water might be? Rules that are reasonable, fairly designed and judiciously enforced facilitate rather than impede commerce. Regulations do not “kill jobs”–they often help create them. They can also create a level playing field for true competition.

In the case of lead, we have national drinking water standards. They are enshrined in federal law and regulation, delegated to state and local governments to implement, and as we have discovered recently not always carefully administered. Tests are expensive, time consuming and not always a high priority. The media attention from Flint, Michigan’s self-inflicted disaster has had a ripple effect throughout the country. Many schools are being tested for lead in their water. But what about the libraries, hospitals, offices and old apartment buildings?

And even though lead is the toxic of the moment, what other poisons are circulating unmeasured in our air, water and food? In a complex global economy, we could not possibly prevent every poison from finding its way into our ecosystems and bodies. But we should be aware of the possibility and use both public and private means to protect our bodies and those of our loved ones.

The issue I am concerned about as I observe the new president and see his EPA designee edging toward confirmation is the possible loss of confidence in the efficacy of our environmental regulatory system. While I would never argue that it’s perfect, American environmental regulation has allowed our economy to grow while reducing the absolute level of most pollutants. But there is more work to do if we are to truly understand the impact of human technology on the environment and public health, and I fear the adverse effect of a pause in the learning process. While I worry about not keeping pace with growing technical complexity, what I really fear is that the radical right may dismantle the rules of environment that EPA and its partners have painstakingly built over the past half-century. That would be more than tragic, it would be treason–an act of war against the American people.

I continue to hope that I am wrong and that the basic structure of America’s environmental regulation will remain intact. It will be very difficult to dismantle, since federal standards are mirrored by state and local codes, and clean air, land and water are widely supported by the public. But we’ve already seen that facts are not always the basis for policy with our new president. If the president’s main goal is to allow business to operate with as few rules as possible, the benefit of environmental rules will not be brought into the discussion. It won’t matter that the benefits of environmental regulation far outweigh the costs. If environmental protection is deregulated, protecting our families from environmental insult will degenerate from a right to a privilege. And that would be tragic.

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