Images of Flint Michigan’s water are hard to forget. For months in 2016, residents drank from taps running gasoline-colored liquid and water bottles filled with murky sludge, but one contaminant grabbed the headlines: lead. Blood lead levels (BLLs) among Flint’s children doubled citywide and even tripled in certain neighborhoods just months after the crisis began. These children suffered from rashes, behavioral issues, and learning delays, which could potentially follow them for life.

As Flint pediatrician Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha said, “Lead is one of the most damning things you can do to a child in their entire life-course trajectory.” However, America’s lead problem isn’t isolated to just one town. An estimated 500,000 children have dangerous levels of lead in their blood, which can lead to serious health complications. But, as in Michigan, contaminated water may be one of the most prominent sources.

Lead seeps into our drinking water via lead pipes, which corrode over time and release lead particles into passing water. These pipes are most prevalent in older homes and buildings, which often are occupied by low-income families or families of color, a situation that has created a decades-old disparity in BLLs. Across the country, Black children and children in low-income households have higher levels of lead in their blood than their white and/or wealthier peers. 

Aging school buildings often serve as a significant source of lead exposure for children. An estimated 400,000 schools and child care centers may have elevated levels of lead in their water. There’s currently no mandated lead testing for school buildings, and schools know that if they find lead, they have to fix it — so more than half just don’t test at all. Among schools that have tested,  more than one-third found elevated lead levels in their water. 

The health ramifications of lead exposure are severe and can cause lifelong complications. Children drink more water per pound of body weight than adults, making them more susceptible to smaller levels of lead. Additionally, lower blood levels of lead cause greater impacts on children than in fully-developed adults. Infants are perhaps at the most risk of consuming lead in drinking water, as those who consume formula may receive up to 60% of their lead exposure via water (as compared to 20% for the average person).

Children exposed to even low levels of lead may develop stomach aches, headaches, and digestive disruptions. They may experience slower development and neurological damage that can lead to clumsiness, drowsiness, and convulsions. Elevated BLLs are associated with attentional issues, decreased academic performance, and behavioral challenges. In the most severe case, it can lead to coma or death.

The ramifications of lead exposure follow children for a lifetime and severe lead poisoning may lead to lasting behavioral and intellectual disabilities. The academic challenges that they face may lead to poorer economic outcomes in adulthood. Research shows that children who were exposed to lead are more likely to have lower socioeconomic statuses than their parents in adulthood. On all fronts, lead exposure sets children up for failure.

So, how do we get the lead out? We can start by replacing our lead pipes. The Environmental Protection Agency recently proposed a rule that will require all community water systems to replace their lead pipes by 2037, starting with communities that have been disproportionately impacted by lead exposure. If finalized, the rule could eliminate one of the biggest sources of lead exposure for kids. Read our comment to learn more.

The Biden-Harris Administration provided $350 billion in the American Rescue Plan for schools and child care centers to replace lead piping. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law also provides billions for states, tribes, and local governments to begin to update their water systems. It’s up to those governments to take up those funds and begin these projects to protect their children’s health.