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Water Lead Contamination—From Rome to Flint

By now, the public health emergency resulting from lead-contaminated water in Flint, Mich., has been made abundantly clear.

The city changed its water source from the Detroit system to the Flint River in April 2014 as a cost-saving measure, exposing its residents to untreated water replete with lead leached from aging pipes. Last September, a local health center found that the proportion of children with elevated lead levels in their blood had nearly doubled since the switch was made. As attention grew around the issue, so too did the public alarm — with good reason. Photos showed Flint residents standing in long lines to collect bottled water and get their children’s blood tested, or standing in court calling for compensation.

And then there were the photos of people holding up samples of the water that had come out of their taps for more than a year. The liquid appears a translucent yellow-brown instead of colorless and clear; if images could emit an odor, these would be foul. But the truly terrifying fact about the water crisis in Flint is invisible. It is the insidious effect of growing up or growing old while unknowingly allowing lead into your bloodstream. According to the World Health Organization, lead creates developmental and behavioral issues in children that are believed to be irreversible.

Water lead poisoning has occurred not just in Flint but all over the country, for decades — and not only from water, but (primarily) from the paint that colors old homes.

On the federal level, there is no comprehensive understanding of the extent to which the population is being exposed to hazardous amounts of lead. Why? Because there is no federal or even state water quality database which public or impacted communities could mine for information. There is a better way. EPA and other agencies responsible for water quality must move into a new century and install a centralized, web-based water quality database where all testing results they collect from various reporting entities should be stored and make accessible in real-time to the general public. That type of transparency is the only way to avoid another Flint. The technology exists but political will may not be there yet.

Flint may have in recent months become synonymous with lead contamination in America, but it is by no means the only — or the most extreme — example of how the toxic element can make its way into our bodies.

Some historians argue that the lead poisoning contributed to the decline of the Roman empire. A team of archaeologists and scientists has recently discovered just how contaminated Roman tap water was. The team dredged sediment downstream from Rome in the harbor basin at Portus, a maritime port of imperial Rome, and from a channel connecting the port to the Tiber River. The researchers compared the lead isotopes in their sediment samples with those found in preserved Roman piping to create a historical record of lead pollution flowing from the Roman capital. Tap water from ancient Rome likely contained up to 100 times more lead than local spring water.

How come that 2000 years later we have still not learned the lesson?

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