Replumbing America: Flint tragedy draws attention to nationwide lead poisoning

Near the end of a press conference on the Flint, Michigan water crisis last week, one reporter repeatedly asked Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder why the lead pipes that have been poisoning the town weren’t going to be replaced as soon as possible.

The answer, the governor explained, is that Flint is using the same process that drinking water utilities across the United States use to minimize the risk of lead poisoning: They add chemicals to the water that create a protective barrier on the inside of the pipes and prevent them from corroding. It’s a process the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has required since 1991.

Even before news of Flint’s water crisis came to light, public health advocates and water utilities have increasingly questioned the decades-old approach.

That’s because research shows that any exposure to lead can be dangerous, particularly to pregnant women and children.

It can damage the brain, red blood cells and kidneys, and can cause lifelong developmental problems.

That risk, and the Flint water crisis, has led an influential group advising the EPA to suggest making the removal of all lead service lines a national priority — something only a few cities have done.

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