The Unseen Poison
By Emily Sussman
In 2018, several children in the small town of Palmerton were found to have elevated levels of lead in their blood. One concerned Palmerton resident, Clare Papay requested that the PA Department of Health hold a blood screening test and took her family to get tested. Several residents were concerned about this finding given that lead can be detrimental to children’s health since it can cause neurological damage.
Lead is a metal that is bluish-grey in color and found in the Earth’s crust. In water, lead is colorless, odorless, and tasteless allowing it to go unnoticed in almost all water supplies. Exposure to lead occurs through inhalation in items such as gasoline, paint, and caulk. Lead can also be ingested when it is present in drinking water. There is no safe blood lead level for children.
Papay first learned about the lead contamination in August 2018 and has since been very involved in finding information about what the EPA is doing. She has been in contact with representatives from the Pennsylvania Department of Health and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). She even went on a field run with members of the PA Department of Environmental Protection to observe what was involved when testing soil. Concerned about the lead contamination, Clare took her family “to the blood lead screening – fortunately we all tested within safe levels for lead.”
“I understand that the EPA is continuing to oversee the clean-up,” she explained. “I contacted them to request data on soil testing for my house that was conducted back in the 90s and they replied promptly.”
When it comes to the EPA, she says that feelings in the town of are mixed. “I believe that they are just trying to do their job, but the complicated nature of dealing with a town that was built by a company that polluted the area but that many residents are very proud of their history and connection with makes this a difficult situation to navigate,” said Papay.
Palmerton isn’t the only city with lead contamination problems. The issue spans across the U.S. where lead has been found in numerous water supplies. This is especially concerning due to lead’s harmful health effects.
The story in Flint is different from other towns with lead contamination. In Flint, Michigan a change in water quality was noticed immediately after the city switched from one water treatment plant to a different one in an effort to save money. In April 2014, the city began providing its residents with water from Flint River instead of the current source, Lake Huron. While pipes were being built to supply water from a new plant, The Flint Water Service Center, Flint’s back-up facility, decided to supply Flint residents with water from the Flint River. Residents began to notice the change in water quality due to the change in water color from the corroding pipes. Otherwise, the lead would have gone unnoticed. The Flint River contained high levels of chlorate compared to sulfate levels, and no corrosion inhibitor, which allowed lead to easily seep from the pipes into the water supply. By May 2014, the water was found to fail the policies of the Safe Water Drinking Act.
A Flint resident, Lee-Anne Walters found out in 2015 that her son’s immune system had been compromised due to lead exposure. “‘Shocked, angry… I was hysterical,’” said Walters, “‘I just couldn’t believe that we were paying to poison our kids.’” After her son was diagnosed with lead poisoning, Walter reached out to the EPA and was told by a representative to test her home’s water for lead. The results were shocking. Water that contains 5,000 parts per billion (ppb) of lead is classified as hazardous waste by the EPA. One of the lead readings from Walter’s home was found to be 13,200 ppb. Another Flint resident, Melissa May said, “‘We’ve been screaming about this since February and people, they’ve just blocked us out.’”
Before the city of Flint decided to change its water source to Flint River, Mike Glasgow, the laboratory and water quality supervisor at the treatment plant notified the State of Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) that the water was not safe to drink. On March 14th Glasgow notified the MDEQ saying, “I do not anticipate giving the OK to begin sending water out anytime soon. If water is distributed from this plant in the next couple weeks, it will be against my direction.” Yet, the city continued with their plan to change the city’s water source. In response to the unsafe drinking water, many Flint residents have filed lawsuits against the city of Flint and government officials.
Although the story of lead-contaminated water in Flint was widely publicized, many other U.S. cities’ water have been found to contain high levels of lead. In 2017, the city of Newark was found to have the highest level of lead in water in the state of New Jersey. In this instance, government officials had been hiding the truth from residents in terms of the extent of the contaminated water. Officials distributed filters to residents and assured them that the lead contamination was only an issue at one of the water treatment plants in Newark. However, evidence later showed that lead testing had only been done at one of the plants. When homes that received water from the non-tested water treatment plant were tested for the presence of lead, high levels of lead were found. Even after high lead levels were found, Mayor Ras Barak of Newark continued to say that the was water was “‘absolutely safe to drink’” and attributed the problem to the old lead pipes. Similar to the case in Flint, the lead problem resulted from inadequate corrosion treatment of the water. Danielle Fienberg, a previous resident of Newark, said of the lead problem “‘I knew it was in the schools, I didn’t think it was in my house.’” Her two year old son was found to have blood lead levels of 6.6 ug/dL, which is above the limit of 5 ug/dL that the CDC recommends. In 2017, lead was found in their home water in the amount of 9.77 parts per billion. Fienberg went on to say, “‘I told all of my friends, they thought I was crazy – I told them to have their water tested. Nobody listened.’”
In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, city officials were warned of lead contamination in water in 2015 by the director of Disease Control and Environmental Health. A miscommunication among government officials delayed the lead warning to city residents. Once the mayor learned of the problem, lead filters were administered to residents who lived in homes that were built before 1951. Lead made its way to resident’s homes through old lead pipes that were being used to start a water main distribution project. He argued that in order for the water to be safe for city residents, then the pipes would have to be replaced. Even though the advisory was meant for people living in homes built before 1951, newly built homes may still be connected to the old pipelines.
A movement called the “Get The Lead Out Coalition” was started by residents of Milwaukee in an effort to bring awareness of the lead contamination problem and to get city officials to take action. One determined member of the coalition, Thomas Welcenbach, has brought attention to maps created by the city that show where the vast amount of the lead pipes are located. Between 2012 and 2016 there were 40 to 50 children deaths concentrated in certain parts of the city, which some people blame on the lead contamination. Maps showing the number of children with elevated blood lead levels and where they reside have been created by the city. However, these maps may not show the whole picture– if less than 10 children were found to have elevated lead levels within a square mile, then that location was not mapped.
The Common Council of Milwaukee discovered that there was a gag order in place that did not allow staff of the City of Milwaukee Health Department to communicate directly with government officials without first going through the health commissioner. This rule prevented residents from learning of the lead contamination. Council members want the Milwaukee Health Department to be held accountable for withholding information from the public. Lead paint, which is also a source for lead contamination is also problem in Milwaukee. About 100,000 older homes still have lead paint. Even though Congress banned the use of lead plumbing systems more than 30 years ago, Ten million homes in the U.S. have lead pipes. The lead contamination problem in the U.S. may be even larger than what is currently known.