Why cities like Flint transport water using pipes made with a poison

Feb 5, 2016

Lead pipes
Credit Mitch Barrie / Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

The Flint water crisis has attracted attention and outrage from all over the globe, but unfortunately, the city of Flint isn’t the first to have its population affected by lead.

Due to the age and condition of lead water lines, it’s entirely possible that other cities around the country are currently suffering from elevated lead levels.

The most recent large-scale example of lead poisoning was discovered in 2001 in Washington D.C.

The nation’s capital had their own water crisis that, in the end, required several millions of dollars to replace toxic water lines buried under the city.

Scientists in this country have known for over a century that lead is poisonous, so the question is, why did we use it to transport our drinking water?

Chris Sellers, a Professor of History at Stony Brook University, recently wrote an article for Conversation.com entitled, Piping as poison: the Flint water crisis and America’s toxic infrastructure

Sellers joined us today on Stateside.

"They didn't know nearly as much about the more subtle effects of lead as we do today."

“They didn’t know nearly as much about the more subtle effects of lead as we do today,” Sellers said. “They were faced with problems in water supplies that were very much immediate and dramatic, such as typhoid and cholera, and they chose lead to build about half of the water pipes in the cities that were being constructed … in the late-19th, early-20th century.”

Sellers points out that lead pipes, despite the risk involved, had a lot of properties that were very useful, like durability and the ability to run the pipes around corners when cities were being constructed. The risk outweighed the convenience mostly because there was very little research done on lead and its affects.

“There was kind of a scientific understanding earlier in the 20th century that was built off studies that were done by people who were in cahoots with the industry,” said Sellers. “There was not a CDC. There was not an EPA. There was not even a National Institutes of Health, and so funding for the science came largely from the industry and its allies.”

According to Sellers, research has shown that elevated lead levels can cause a number of problems in people, including lower IQs and behavioral problems.

As a result, some studies have shown a link between lead exposure in children and violent crime. Since lead was banned from paint in 1978 and phased out of gasoline in the 1980s, some cities have seen lower crime rates, leaving some to speculate that there might be a connection.  

What we've seen is a kind of segregation of lead's poisonous effects.

“When you’re talking about the lead in paint in old houses, when you’re talking about the lead in water pipes, those are more confined to particular communities, and often times those communities are not so well off,” said Sellers. “What we’ve seen is a kind of segregation of lead’s poisonous effects. The overall effects have been great, from getting it out of gasoline, but we still have a great deal of work to do in the homes and in our built-in infrastructure to get lead out of American life, and to stop the harm that it has been causing ever since our binge on lead in the middle of the 20th century.”