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Lead in My Pipes Taught Me How Little America Does to Protect Children

13 minute read
Benforado is a professor of law at Drexel University and the author of the award-winning New York Times bestseller Unfair. His new book is A Minor Revolution: How Prioritizing Kids Benefits Us All

Sometimes I wonder if children heeded the old maxim to be seen, but not heard, whether they would be noticed at all. I take my daughter to school, holding her scooter and hand as we step out into the crosswalk, and watch the cars accelerate around the curve to try to shoot the gap. At the park, I stand next to another bearded dad, one hand behind the swing pushing, one hand with the iPhone, scrolling. So often, children are at the back of our minds, not the front—invisible when they are right before us. What’s particularly worrying is that even those charged directly with protecting kids can be infected with this careless apathy. At critical moments, they, too, are just going through the motions.

Before my family moved into our 1860 row house, I called up the Philadelphia Water Department to get the drinking water tested. As I explained to the technician who came out, I was concerned about the lead service line in the basement. I had a two-year-old daughter and I really wanted to protect her. He assured me that the water was very unlikely to be contaminated because “unlike Flint,” Philadelphia adequately treats its water so the pipes maintain a protective coating that prevents leaching. The test results showed as much. As the technician wrote to me, “the water appeared to be normal city water and there [was] no cause for concern regarding lead in it.”

My wife, daughter, and I moved in and began drinking, cooking, and bathing with the water.

That ought to be the end of the story, but several months later we did something that virtually no one does after receiving a clean bill of health on their water—we had it retested by a third party.

We’d heard about a nonprofit collecting data for a research study on residential lead in the city and we volunteered to help, fully expecting that we’d receive the same results. Indeed, my initial response on opening the letter was that it must have been sent to the wrong address.

The first sample from our house had more than seventy times the amount of lead as Philadelphia Water had detected; the second had more than ten times the amount. We had, what was described in the materials as, a “serious lead contamination problem.”

It was baffling, until I compared the collection methods and discovered that the city didn’t actually sample the water that had been sitting in that lead service line—the one I’d repeatedly emphasized was the reason for getting my water tested in the first place. Instead, they tested the water sitting in the new non-lead pipes directly next to the kitchen sink and—after letting the water flush for ten minutes—the water from the non-lead main.

My wife and I were shocked. Parents like us aren’t interested in the minimum lead exposure level—if our kids let the tap run for ten minutes every time they get a glass of water or brush their teeth. We want to know what the water contains when they act like normal children, who turn on the faucet when they are thirsty, drink down the cup as soon as it is filled, and head back to what they were doing.

But testing the water left stagnant in the suspect pipes carries a huge downside for municipalities like Philadelphia—precisely because it is a far more accurate means of capturing the risk to kids.

The EPA’s Lead and Copper Rule states that if more than 10 percent of sampled sites exceed the “action level” of fifteen parts per billion, a utility must address the contamination, including replacing lead pipes. By instructing its technicians to avoid sampling water left sitting in the lead service lines and instead to take water from the main, Philadelphia Water can avoid costly regulation.

Now, you might assume—as I did—that the fifteen parts per billion action level for lead is the threshold between safe and unsafe drinking water. But that’s not what it is.

Under the 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act, the EPA was required to determine the level at which various contaminants in water produced no adverse health effects. For lead, the maximum exposure level was identified as zero parts per billion: there is no amount of lead in water that is safe for children.

When fetuses and children are exposed to even very low levels, the consequences can be devastating. Lead has been linked to lower IQs, learning disabilities, nervous system damage, and social and emotional dysfunction. Indeed, there is a particularly troubling correlation between early childhood lead exposure and later violent criminal behavior.

The problem for the EPA was that, for decades, America built houses with lead pipes and lead solder joints. Setting a maximum contaminant level at zero would mean replacing all that plumbing. At fifteen parts per billion, though, most of it could be left in place (particularly as the regulations allowed water utilities to get away with up to 10 percent of their samples exceeding that figure). While logic would suggest that the action level is set so high because lead is not a major threat to children, ironically, the level is so high because the threat to children is so pervasive.

What we clearly have, then, is children’s health ignored at the moment of building core infrastructure, ignored at the moment of crafting regulations to address harms from that infrastructure, and ignored at the moment of complying with those regulations.

This is not a story about people setting out to harm children. This is a story about not focusing on them, about not putting them first. And it is a common story: in many ways, the biggest threat to kids comes not from our deliberate actions to disadvantage children, but from our neglect. Far too often, we either don’t know that children are being affected by our actions or fail to ensure that the processes we’ve created to protect kids have their intended purpose. Most of the time, even those of us specifically tasked with guarding children’s welfare are just going down our lists, walking through the protocol, cursory cogs turning, turning, turning.

In numerous contexts, rather than ask people to protect children, we ask them to follow procedures that purport to protect children but often come up short. We don’t tell officers to protect young suspects from harm. We demand that they adhere strictly to use-of-force and Miranda protocols, heedless of the fact that these protocols fail many children, who may struggle to control their behavior after receiving an order from police, whose bodies are particularly vulnerable to the restraints that were developed for adults, who do not understand their rights, and who are particularly susceptible to interrogation techniques that lead to false confessions.

In immigration court, we playact through farcical proceedings in which the process appears to be perfectly in order: case numbers and dockets, a defendant seated at a table, a government prosecutor, and a robed judge, asking the questions you’d expect to hear when assessing whether asylum is warranted: “Why did you come to America?” “What would happen to you if you were returned to Guatemala?” The only thing that’s out of place—that renders the whole scene ridiculous—is that the defendant, the one being asked, through an interpreter, whether he understands the proceedings, is a one-year-old.

A consequence of procedure dominating over substance is that we have come to devote much of our attention to avoiding liability for harm to children rather than addressing the harm. That’s a theme in the municipal response to lead exposure. Rather than act to remove lead paint, we have people sign “disclosures” acknowledging that the risk has been divulged before they move in. Instead of paying to replace lead service lines, we hand out pamphlets with recommendations about flushing the pipes before you have a glass of water, knowing full well that most people will not read them or heed the advice.

Across the board, the most prominent and authoritative entities in society—churches, universities, businesses, and governments—that could do a huge amount to curb danger to kids, instead put their efforts into protecting themselves from lawsuits and bad press. Rather than giving up button batteries, which we’ve known for decades can be fatal if swallowed, we attach a label: warning—keep out of reach of children. Rather than hiring scientists to make safer pesticides, we hire lobbyists to ensure that the ones that cause cancer are legal. With a waiver at your water park, you can cut back on monitoring, put off updating equipment, and avoid paying for kids who get hurt. With a nondisclosure agreement after a sexual assault, you can minimize scandal, additional claims, and “disruptive” reforms.

A system focused on blind adherence to procedure rather than the substantive welfare of children will never adequately ensure children’s welfare. If you work at the water department and with clear scientific guidelines widely known, your goal should be to provide safe water to children. With that proper outlook, you want to know the amount of lead in pipes and so you design the most sensitive tests possible. You don’t cross your fingers and hope that parents will protect their kids by routinely cleaning out aerators, replacing old pipes, and running the tap for five minutes before filling a glass of water; you check if they do and, if they don’t, you act. You don’t wait for children in your city to become poisoned or wait to be sanctioned by the EPA before you change course.

For my family, this story has a happy ending. We caught the lead problem very early. We had the money to pay $6,700 to have the service line and basement pipes replaced. And my daughter, being a milkaholic, drank very little water from the house during the critical period, so the lead levels in her blood were normal. There is hope on the horizon, too, for Philadelphia. On February 3rd, President Biden came to town to announce $500 million in funding to help remove lead piping in the city.

But we all need to wake up. We must stop being passive when it comes to children’s welfare. Indeed, there is a strong case for not simply being aware of how our actions impact children but putting children first in our thoughts. In law, politics, and debate, the plea to “think of the children” is often derided as irrelevant sentimentality, a cheap trick, or a logical fallacy. But that’s wrong.

Feeling emotion for children is clarifying: it wakes up our moral sense, reminds us of our values, and allows us to focus on the real costs and benefits of our actions. It is no coincidence that when TIME identified the most influential photographs of all time, three of the top seven were of imperiled children, including #1: Kim Phuc, nine, running naked from the napalm attack on her home near Trang Bang, South Vietnam.

New psychological research supports the benefits to everyone of focusing on children. In a series of experiments, participants whose attention was drawn to kids were more motivated to address social problems and help others, and expressed more empathy for the challenges other adults faced. In a one of the studies, adults were roughly twice as likely to donate to charity when children were present on a public street than when only adults were present, and it didn’t matter if the charity was dedicated to children or not. The “child salience effect” seems to produce a broad pro-social impulse. Yet there is more to why focusing on children leads to good policy. Kids are canaries in our coal mines. The things that harm kids also tend to harm adults, but kids are more sensitive to the bad effects.

Take tear gas and pepper spray. Children are especially vulnerable to these types of agents because they have considerably faster respiration than adults, so they may inhale a proportionately far larger dose of toxin. An infant might take upward of fifty breaths a minute, while an adult is averaging just twelve to sixteen. And infants’ and preschoolers’ lungs and trachea are particularly sensitive to chemicals and can quickly become dangerously inflamed, when a comparable adult might suffer only minor distress. If children are your focus—the population you consider first in deciding what the policy of the United States should be—it becomes hard to justify using noxious agents, like tear gas, on migrants trying to cross the border illegally.

If, instead, you use an average adult man to decide the danger posed by riot-control agents, car crashes, psychotropic medications, pesticides, particulate matter from truck exhaust, adulterated food, and the like, everyone ends up exposed to far more harm than they otherwise would be. And anyone who is more vulnerable than the average adult man ends up being put, quite unfairly, at greater risk. The asthma rates in Honduras and El Salvador are roughly twice as high as those in the U.S., and when asthmatics breathe in toxins, the result can be fatal. Ban spraying tear gas on migrants and all those individuals benefit.

But we haven’t taken a child-centric approach with assessing riot control agents—or many other risks. Arguably the most influential study on ochlorobenzylidene malononitrile tear gas involved a controlled exposure with a set of thirty-five healthy, male, adult volunteers. Now, though, police and military officials around the world spray it indiscriminately into crowds filled with people who are not healthy, male, or adult. A ten-pound preemie drinks the same water, mixed into her formula, as the 154-pound healthy male used to develop many national drinking water standards. The eight-year-old takes the same antidepressant “off-label” as the thirty-year-old for whom the drug was designed, tested, and FDA-approved. Focusing on the response of the most robust and resilient human beings is a terrible strategy for protecting a diverse population.

Instead, make kids your primary focus, and you will intervene earlier and more completely, with major health benefits for everyone. Our beauty products will generate fewer cancers across all age groups. Medicines will have less serious side effects. The air in our cities and the water out of our taps will be far cleaner. Our airplanes will cruise more smoothly through turbulence.

Adapted from Adam Benforado’s new book A Minor Revolution: How Prioritizing Kids Benefits Us All

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