Water lead levels should concern Kansans

Aging water lines need to be replaced posthaste. Kansas has the third-highest number of lead pipes per capita in the nation.



November 5, 2021 - 4:22 PM

According to a national study published by the American Medical Association last month, 65% of Kansas children have elevated levels of lead in their blood — 15 points higher than the national average.

There is no safe level of lead, per the Center for Disease Control.

Lead exposure, especially early in life, can lead to brain and nervous system damage, slow growth and development, and learning, behavior, hearing, and speech problems.

While we have made significant progress over the past 40 years in reducing lead exposure via government policies that work to eliminate it from gasoline, paint, plumbing, and consumer products, there is still much to be done. Many older homes in low-income areas, especially minority-populated urban areas, still have an abundance of lead in paint and plumbing.

Health concerns associated with lead exposure invoke thoughts of Flint, Michigan where, in the name of financial savings, the local and state governments failed to appropriately treat the water supply and it poisoned thousands of children. The city’s kids will never fully recover.

But we can work to prevent it from happening elsewhere.

Lead exposure via water isn’t only a concern in states like Michigan. It’s a problem right here in Kansas.

KANSAS HAS some of the highest numbers of lead service lines in the country. Per the National Resources Defense Council, Kansas has the third highest number of lead pipes per capita. These pipes carry water into our homes and buildings that our children then drink.

Appropriate water treatment can prevent pipe corrosion. But once service lines begin to corrode, they carry lead into our drinking water. Water that has high acidity or low mineral content is especially corrosive to fixtures and pipes. This is exactly what happened in Flint.

There has long been a lack of political will to replace lead service lines. But after the Flint crisis, it has recently become a national priority under the Biden administration. The president’s infrastructure plan has proposed devoting $45 billion to replacing lead pipes, including the approximate 158,000 lead pipes in our state.

Research by Dan Slusky, a health economics expert and Associate Professor at the University of Kansas, studies the economic impact of lead exposure. His analysis concludes that the benefits of the infrastructure plan would justify the costs.

Cities across the country have recently faced lead-based public health crises. Are Kansas’ cities next?

If the past two years have shown us anything it’s that health is a community issue. It has also shown us that scientific truths are often dismissed for political reasons.

Government can protect rights, promote equality, and prevent historic injustice — but it often requires citizens to demand government use this power preventatively. A lead crisis would be too late for Kansas’ kids. No amount of exposure is safe.

But we can — and should — pressure Kansas’ congressional delegation to prioritize replacing lead pipes as part of the infrastructure plan. This is our chance to protect the health and wellbeing of Kansas’ kids.

About the author: Alexandra Middlewood is an assistant professor of political science at Wichita State University.

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