Commentary: Lawmakers could help avoid a Flint disaster here in Texas

After nearly three years of grappling with contaminated drinking water, the citizens of Flint, Mich., finally obtained some relief as a federal court approved a settlement this week mandating replacement of lead pipes.

However, lead in drinking water is not unique to Flint, and we must confront the sobering need to “get the lead out” here in Texas as well.

Lead is a potent neurotoxin. It is particularly damaging to children, who absorb as much as 90 percent more lead into their bodies than adults. Once ingested, lead flows from the blood to the brain, kidneys and bones. Children’s organs and bones are immature and more vulnerable than adults’; they also have an incomplete blood-brain barrier.

We have known for some time that high levels of lead can cause severe health impacts — including anemia, kidney disease, abnormal brain function and even death. Yet medical science now confirms that even low levels of lead can cause permanent damage to our children.

Test results now show that lead is even contaminating drinking water in schools and preschools — flowing from thousands of fountains and faucets where our kids drink water every day.

Here in Texas, as more schools test their water, they are finding lead. According to an analysis by Environment Texas, 65 percent of Texas schools that have tested have lead levels greater than the standard recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Yet such confirmed cases of lead-laced water are likely just the tip of the iceberg. Most schools aren’t even testing their water for lead. And often we only hear about “elevated” results – i.e., those showing more than 15 parts per billion of lead in the water. Yet there is no safe level of lead.

Moreover, even properly done testing often fails to detect lead in water. Mark Edwards, the Virginia Tech expert who helped Flint residents uncover their tragedy, has even compared lead testing to Russian roulette, where tests might find lead one day and give false negatives the next.

The reason for this pervasive problem is simple: All too often, the water delivery systems in our homes and schools are lined with lead — from the pipes to the plumbing and fixtures. In some cases, the service line, which brings water from the main pipe in the street into a home or school, is entirely made of lead.

So instead of waiting for more tests to confirm this toxin at the tap, we should take a more preventative approach, one that truly prioritizes children’s health and safety.

The common-sense solution is to remove lead from pipes, plumbing and fixtures. And until we’re sure that’s 100 percent done, we can protect our children with filters certified to remove lead at every tap used for drinking or cooking.

To be sure, undoing this toxic legacy throughout all of our communities will take time. But the first place for us to start is with our schools and day cares — and the places where our children go each day to learn and play.

Sen. Sylvia Garcia and Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, have respectively introduced Senate Bill 1587 and House Bill 3695 to require water utilities to replace lead pipes in schools and require schools to do regular testing and install filters on water fountains.

As our nation rushed through more than a century of unprecedented economic growth, we allowed toxic health threats like lead to become embedded into the fabric our lives. We allowed manufacturers to put this potent neurotoxin in our paint, gasoline and many other products.

For decades, public health officials have been working to undo the damage. Banning lead in gasoline immediately removed a major source of toxic air pollution. Barring lead in paint stopped a major threat to children’s health from becoming even worse, but we are still cleaning up the damage from millions of homes with lead paint, as well as related lead in dust and soil.

Yet until Flint, few of us were thinking about lead in the pipes and plumbing that bring drinking water right to our faucets. Now we know, and now we must act.

For the sake of our children’s health, it’s time to “get the lead out” here in Texas.

Metzger is the director of Environment Texas, a statewide citizen-funded advocate for clean air, clean water and open spaces.

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