Organizing for Lead Free Water

The EPA has set the maximum contaminant level goal for lead in drinking water at zero because lead is a toxic metal that can be harmful to human health even at low exposure levels. Lead is persistent, and it can bioaccumulate in the body over time. Young children, infants, and fetuses are particularly vulnerable to lead because the physical and behavioral effects of lead occur at lower exposure levels in children than in adults. A dose of lead that would have little effect on an adult can have a significant effect on a child. In children, low levels of exposure have been linked to damage to the central and peripheral nervous system, learning disabilities, shorter stature, impaired hearing, and impaired formation and function of blood cells.

It is important to recognize all the ways a child can be exposed to lead. Children are exposed to lead in paint, dust, soil, air, and food, as well as drinking water. If the level of lead in a child’s blood is at or above the CDC action level of 5 micrograms per deciliter, it may be due to lead exposures from a combination of sources. EPA estimates that drinking water can make up 20 percent or more of a person’s total exposure to lead. Infants who consume mostly mixed formula can receive 40 percent to 60 percent of their exposure to lead from drinking water.

Even low levels of lead in the blood of children can result in:

  • Behavior and learning problems
  • Lower IQ and hyperactivity
  • Slowed growth
  • Hearing problems
  • Anemia

These dangers to children first hit home for me when I participated in a Lead Free event at Hephatha Lutheran Church, Milwaukee, my home congregation since my retirement from active parish ministry.  My daughter, Nora, was pregnant at the time with my first grandchild.  I began to send her alarming information about the hazards of lead.  She immediately purchased an NSF/ANSI Standard 53 certified lead water filter for the kitchen sink in her apartment.  Some Sunday mornings at Hephatha, a lead damaged child attends worship and, to no fault of his own, runs uncontrollably through the sanctuary.  The pastor and congregation are remarkably sensitive to this child and alert to this living reminder of the hazards of lead poisoning that heavily assault the low-income neighborhood of the church where aging houses receive their water through old, deteriorating, lead lateral lines.

I couldn’t of course be concerned only about my grandchild.  So I used my years of organizing experience in MICAH to help form COLE (Coalition on Lead Emergency) with seven member organizations including MICAH.

How can churches baptize from a font of living water and not demand that the City ensure purity of water for all of God’s children whether baptized or not?

Replacement of the 70,000 lead laterals in Milwaukee is essential.  But the cost will be about a billion dollars.  At its current snail’s pace, the City will take 86 years to complete the replacement.  And to complicate matters, the fact is that most older houses have interior plumbing with significant lead issues, such as lead solder, that can make tap water dangerous even if there is no lead lateral line.

We need interim measures that immediately protect young children, particularly infants, from the lead hazards that may be present in tap water.

While this organizing effort is just starting, I am hopeful that we will win our primary issue cut – pressing the City to develop public-private partnerships to raise sufficient funds for Milwaukee hospitals to provide a free NSF/ANSI Standard 53 certified lead filter water pitcher to every birthing mother.

I anticipate that some politicians will claim that it is cost prohibitive to provide a massive distribution of free water filters.  We will point out that, under threat of a lawsuit by the National Resources Defense Council, Newark has just agreed to distribute 40,000 free water filters in an impoverished city that is less than half the size of Milwaukee.  We will also remind the City that between 2007-2017 it utilized taxpayer-funded bonds to cover the costs of settlements and judgments stemming from police brutality to the tune of $29.8 million.  Providing free certified lead filter water pitchers, including a year of replacement filters, for each baby born in Milwaukee would cost about a million dollars a year, a modest price to protect priceless babies.

-Dennis Jacobsen


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