By Olga Naidenko, Environmental Working Group
Third-graders’ reading scores in Flint, Mich., have dropped dramatically since the city’s crisis of lead contamination in drinking water began, according to reports in the Detroit Free Press and The New Republic.
Standardized test results show that in 2014, about 42 percent of Flint’s third graders were proficient in reading. Last year, about 11 percent were found proficient. Over those three years, reading scores throughout Michigan also declined, and the test was made harder, but Flint’s decline was significantly larger than the statewide average.
Even though many Flint families have switched to bottled water, high lead levels at the taps in homes and schools continue to plague the city. EWG’s Tap Water Database shows that in 2015, the highest recorded lead level in Flint was 707 parts per billion, or ppb – nearly 50 times greater than the federal action level for lead of 15 ppb.
Under the Environmental Protection Agency’s Lead and Copper Rule, lead concentrations must be below 15 ppb in 90 percent of households sampled. If water exceeds this legal limit, the utility must apply measures to control lead leaching from water pipes and warn its customers.
There is strong scientific consensus that any amount of lead exposure during childhood is harmful.
“Even the very lowest levels of exposure, we know that lead erodes a child’s IQ, shortens attention span, and disrupts their behavior,” Dr. Philip Landrigan, a pediatrician and the dean for global health at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, told The New Republic. He said children exposed to lead are more likely to be dyslexic, have behavioral problems and get in trouble with the law.
The impact of lead on reading and math scores has been reported in recent studies. In 2015, University of Chicago researchers analyzed children’s reading and math scores on standardized tests. They found that for every 5 microgram per deciliter increase in blood lead levels, the risk of failing on the reading and math tests increased by a third.
After the Flint water crisis started, children who consumed the city’s lead-tainted water had 46 percent higher blood lead levels than children in nearby Detroit. It has been estimated that roughly 12,000 Flint children were exposed to water with high levels of lead.
As EWG analysis of federal data shows, more than 1,000 water systems nationwide have elevated levels of lead. The permanent, effective solution is replacement of aging lead water pipes around the country and remediating lead hazards in old housing. Until then, EWG recommends that parents take measures to reduce their children’s exposure to lead from all sources, paying special attention to old lead paint and lead pipes in their water supply systems.