What surprised Elyse Pivnick weren’t the details, even though they were grim: Flint, Mich., a town of 100,000, had been poisoned, its children made sick by levels of lead in the drinking water so high, they exceed the government’s definition of hazardous waste.
But as she watched the eyes of the nation turn to Michigan last year, Ms. Pivnick, an environmental health expert who has spent 12 years working on lead-poisoning prevention, realized something else. Shortly before the Flint scandal became public, Ms. Pivnick had worked on a study of lead poisoning in New Jersey. In 11 cities in that state, there was a higher percentage of children affected by lead than in Flint.
“This is not to take a thing away from the debacle in Flint,” says Ms. Pivnick, who is the director of environmental health at Isles, a community development organization, “but it is to say that this is a very old problem.”
Some of the darkest chapters in the history of American industrialization are written in lead. For the better part of a century, as factories, suburbs and highways transformed the socioeconomic fabric of the country, lead was a central construction and production material. It was added to paint and gasoline; it lined the water pipes.
By the time the nation’s health agencies finally restricted its use on account of the deleterious effects it has on the minds of children – the harrowing evidence of decreased intelligence, stunted growth, organ damage – lead had already become a central connective tissue in much of the country’s infrastructure.
President Barack Obama will travel to Flint today, his first trip there since the tainted water crisis broke last year. He is expected to meet with local residents and give a speech about what the government intends to do to fix a situation that many in the city have called a living nightmare.
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