Screen Shot 2016-03-04 at 12.51.53 PMIn the wake of the Flint water crisis, which has and continues to expose 8,000 children and their families to lead poisoned water, the Senate is poised to vote on the Drinking Water Safety and Infrastructure Act, championed by Senator Debbie Stabenow, Senator Peters and Senator Inhofe. The bipartisan package would help Flint and other communities mitigate damages to children and residents caused by lead poisoned water and fund critical infrastructural improvements to ensure clean drinking water. In addition to requiring federal authorities to notify the public of elevated lead in drinking water, the package would provide the following grants, loans and increased appropriations:

  • $100 million to the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund (DWSRF) for subsidized loans and grants in to any state facing a declared public health threat from lead or other contaminants in a public drinking water supply system.
  • $70 million to the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act Fund (WIFIA) to increase secured financing for water infrastructure projects. 
  • $17.5 million for HHS Secretary to conduct a health registry to monitor health in a community with lead contamination in the local drinking water system.
  • $2.5 million to create an advisory committee to review federal efforts related to lead poisoning programming, research, and services, and to make recommendations to Congress and the Administration on how to improve health, education, and nutrition responses.
  • $10 million over two years for the CDC Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Fund, which educates the public and health providers, supports research, and provides funding to states to address and prevent childhood lead poisoning.
  • $10 million over two years for the HUD Healthy Homes Program, which provides grants to states to identify and mitigate a variety of environmental health and safety issues such as lead, mold, carbon monoxide, and radon.
  • $10 million over two years for the HHS Healthy Start Initiative to assist pregnant women and new mothers by connecting them to necessary health care and other resources needed to foster healthy childhood development.

While we support and applaud the bipartisan group of lawmakers who negotiated this package, as well as Rep. Kildee, Rep. Scott and others who have shown leadership in their response to the Flint crisis, the legislation is simply not enough to comprehensively address the needs of children in Flint, fix Flint’s failing infrastructure, or begin to detect and address the real dangers that lead poses in states and communities across our nation.

Lead in Flint is the tip of the iceberg. Every state faces the danger of elevated lead levels from the pipes and systems that transport water into our homes, and more commonly, from lead in paint in older households and in our soil. Some 24 million homes in our nation have deteriorated lead paint, with their residents unaware of the dangers particularly for babies and toddlers, in their own homes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that over one-half of a million children ages 1 through 5 suffer from lead poisoning. In fact, it has been reported that 12 states have a greater percentage of children under age 6 with high blood lead levels than Flint. And these statistics are just from the limited information we have. On the federal level, there is no comprehensive understanding of the extent to which the population is being exposed to hazardous amounts of lead. The existence of lead in our nation’s water supply, the paint that colors our homes and our soil is a national problem that demands a national, comprehensive response by Congress.

In order to enact legislation that advances what science, technology and medicine tell us are the best approaches to this multifaceted problem, we recommend that Congress establish a “lead commission” with experts from federal and state government, academia, lead abatement, water infrastructure, businesses, housing, public health, and early childhood developmental fields to develop recommendations for legislation that will address the detection, surveillance, and abatement of lead nationally as well as the impact of lead exposure on people, particularly children, and practices that mitigate the dangers of lead. We recommend that Congress impose time deadlines that ensure that it will promptly consider recommendations of the commission. At a minimum, the legislation should:

  • Identify the national scope of the lead problem with increased funding and better coordinated state and federal systems for detection and surveillance of lead in our water supply, housing, paint and soil;
  • Provide diverse, yet coordinated funding sources of sufficient magnitude to repair and replace water infrastructure systems, including residential pipe replacement to ensure that our drinking water is free of lead;
  • Provide funding for existing lead abatement services to eliminate lead-based paint hazards in homes;
  • Provide funding early childhood programs and services for children exposed to lead, including screenings and other necessary health services, mental health services for children and families, nutritional support, Head Start, preschool, home visiting, special education, and other supports for children and families;
  • Provide funding for research regarding the short and long-term impacts of lead poisoning and the health, educational and social services that mitigate the effects of lead poisoning.

Congress should enact the bipartisan package quickly to provide Flint and other communities with immediate assistance. But it would be a grave mistake for Congress to stop there. Our nation needs a comprehensive framework to address lead and the lifelong dangers it posses to all of us, most of all, our children.

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