The water crisis in Flint, Mich., is just the tip of the iceberg – and if you think that it can’t happen in your community, you’re sadly mistaken. The aging water infrastructure in this country is deeply flawed. Many of the 150,000 public water systems that serve more than 300 million people are based on rusting, leaky pipes and decades-old plans that— if not corrected and replaced— will have devastating and long-lasting effects on our communities.
The disaster in Flint, which began in 2014 when the city switched its water supply from Detroit’s system to the Flint River in a cost-saving measure, is likely brewing in many other communities. It is inconceivable to me that in the most developed nation on the planet, we have exposed families and young children to the poisonous effects of lead. And it is almost criminal to me that water supply officials were unaware that the water pumping through a large American city was endangering the community. That level of negligence is beyond comprehension.
The dangerous, detrimental effects that lead can have on a developing brain and body are well-documented. In 1978, a largely successful campaign to remove lead from home paint products resulted in a new law, after it was found that small children could mistakenly eat paint chips and be exposed to lead poisoning. When it comes to levels of lead in water, no true amount is safe. However, in 1991 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) established an action level for lead in public drinking water at 15 micrograms per liter, and required water supplies to routinely test household tap water to check lead levels.
These laws and others were established to protect our citizens from both indirect and direct exposure to the harmful compound. A person can be directly exposed to lead by drinking contaminated water with unsafe levels, while indirect exposure can occur when a person inhales contaminated water particles through steam or vapors.
Once lead enters the human body, the heavy metal attaches itself to cells that can begin to build up in bones or major organs like the liver or kidneys. It disrupts the normal cellular biology of the organ and can lead to chronic diseases. However, the most dangerous damage lead poisoning can inflict is on the brain, especially in young or unborn children. If lead is deposited in a developing fetal brain, it can disrupt the normal function and cause irreversible damage. The same can happen in young children whose brains are still maturing.
The consequences can result in low IQ, severe delays in cognitive function, significant disruption in the memory center of the brain, learning disabilities and other neurological deficits. The devastating part of this diagnosis is that it is, for the most part, irreversible. Patients exposed to acute lead poisoning can be treated through chelation, which is a method used to filter out the lead. However, for children chronically exposed over a period of time, the damage cannot be undone.
This makes the preventable crisis in Flint all the more devastating.
I read that the Obama administration is planning to pick Dr. Nicole Lurie to act as a “czar” and fix the crisis in Flint, but I urge her to look further than just Michigan. Lurie and others must start to seriously evaluate other areas of America where the people are most susceptible to a disaster such as this. The government failed the city of Flint, it must act now to protect the rest of us.
Dr. Manny Alvarez serves as Fox News Channel's senior managing health editor. He also serves as chairman of the department of obstetrics/gynecology and reproductive science at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey. Click here for more information on Dr. Manny's work with Hackensack University Medical Center. Visit AskDrManny.com for more.