Millions of Americans living in rural communities could be at risk of drinking and bathing in toxic water, a year-long investigation by USA Today has found. Four million live in regions where small water operators skipped required safety tests and around 100,000 people get their water from operators that discovered high lead levels but failed to take action to remove it in a timely fashion. An additional 850 small water utilities have not tested for lead since 2010 despite having a recorded history of lead contamination in the system. They could be drinking lead-contaminated water without even knowing it because the country’s regulatory system exempts small-scale utility companies from the same safety regulations that govern their larger counterparts.
Ranger, Texas, is one such system out of about 130 since 2010 where operators failed to take action in a timely manner to treat known dangers in the water:
Three years ago, the city found excessive levels of copper [in the water]. Nine months after that, three of 20 sites tested over the limit of 15 parts per billion of lead. Under federal law, both required immediate action, but documents show the city waited until this fall to start planning to control corrosion. Testing this September found five sites above the limit for lead, the Walton home topping the list at 418 parts per billion. The federal limit is 15. Similar scenarios play out in hundreds of mostly struggling communities — cities built on boom-bust industries like oil and coal, isolated rural places and mobile home parks housing the poorest people in town. [USA Today]
The leaders of this former oil boomtown never gave 2-year-old Adam Walton a chance to avoid the poison. It came in city water, delivered to his family’s tap through pipes nearly a century old. For almost a year, the little boy bathed in lead-tainted water and ate food cooked in it. As he grew into a toddler — when he should have been learning to talk — he drank tap water containing a toxin known to ravage a child’s developing brain.
Adam’s parents didn’t know about the danger until this fall.Officials at City Hall knew long before then, according to local and state records. So did state and federal government regulators who are paid to make sure drinking water in Texas and across the nation is clean. Ranger and Texas officials were aware of a citywide lead problem for two years — one the city still hasn’t fixed and one the Waltons first learned about in a September letter to residents. The city and state even knew, from recent tests, that water in the Walton family’s cramped, one-bedroom rental house near the railroad tracks was carrying sky-high levels of lead.
Additionally, “the bar for running tiny water systems is low,” USA Today reports. Or, in the words of Paul Schwartz, who works with the Campaign for Lead Free Water to remove the toxin from drinking supplies, “you might have to get more training to run a hot dog stand than a small water system.”
Virginia Tech’s Marc Edwards, one of the nation’s top experts on lead in drinking water who helped identify the crisis in Flint, Mich., laments that people in America’s forgotten places — rural outposts, post-industrial communities and poor towns — are most at risk from the dangers of lead exposure, such as irreversible brain damage, lowered IQ, behavioral problems and language delays.
Edwards said the effects of lead poisoning could make it even more difficult for families in these communities to climb out of poverty. “I’m worried about their kids,” he said. “The risk of permanent harm here is horrifying. These are America’s children.”
Read more of the findings, and what is being done to protect families, at USA Today