Opinion: Progress in state’s lead pipe problem

In November 2021, I wrote my second column for Insight Kansas as a guest contributor. I wrote on the prevalence of lead pipes in our state.

The number of lead pipes in Kansas is particularly high, comparatively, because lead mining was a major industry in southeast Kansas and southwest Missouri.

This issue is an important one to me as I grew up right outside of Flint, Michigan, and the Flint water crisis had a major impact on my loved ones.

In that column I discussed a national study published by the American Medical Association that showed 65% of Kansas children (15 points higher than the national average) had elevated levels of lead in their blood. I also discussed the ability of the then-being-debated federal infrastructure bill to prevent exposing our children to even more lead.

Children are particularly susceptible to the harmful effects caused by lead exposure.

Per the National Resources Defense Council, Kansas has the third highest number of lead pipes per capita; an estimated 158,000 lead pipes are still in place across the state. These pipes carry potentially toxic water into our homes, businesses, and schools.

However, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced wonderful news this week for Kansas. The agency has allocated $28.6 million from the 2021 federal infrastructure bill to continue replacing our state’s lead water pipes.

This $28.6 million won’t replace all the remaining lead pipes in Kansas, but it will make a decent dent.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention maintains that no amount of lead exposure is safe, so any amount of reduction in lead pipes is a win for Kansas’ kids

The EPA’s goal is to replace all remaining lead pipes nationwide by 2033.

As I stated in that previous column: If the past four years have shown us anything it’s that health crises are public problems and therefore require public solutions.

In these four years we have also learned that scientific truths are often dismissed for political reasons.

The 2021 bill that is providing the funding for the EPA to replace our state’s lead pipes was passed with bipartisan support. However, only Rep. Sharice Davids of Kansas’ 3rd Congressional District voted in support of the bill; the other five members of Kansas’ congressional delegation voted against it.

It’s very unlikely that the Republican members of our congressional delegation were specifically opposed to the funds earmarked for lead pipe replacement.

However, as I wrote over two years ago, government’s ability to protect rights, promote equality and prevent historic injustice is reliant on its willingness to use its governing power preventively.

A lead crisis, like the one in Flint, Michigan, would be too late for Kansas’ kids. No amount of lead exposure is safe.

The $28.6 million in federal infrastructure funds is our chance to protect the health and well-being of Kansas’ kids. Additional allocations in future infrastructure bills could get us even closer to this goal.

With the current funding allocations for lead pipe replacement, the federal government strides towards safeguarding Kansas’ children from lead exposure. While not a complete solution, it signifies progress in a crucial battle for public health. As we continue this fight, let’s remember: Every step counts in securing a safer future for our kids.

— Alexandra Middlewood is the department chair of political science at Wichita State University.


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