For many decades, the serious dangers associated with lead have been clear.
Even small amounts of lead exposure can cause a range of significant health problems for people at any age. For children 6 and younger, the potential consequences – learning disabilities and developmental delays that will affect them for the rest of their lives – can be especially devastating.
Yet despite everything we know, and all the steps that have been taken – including prohibitions on lead in paint and new plumbing systems –lead poisoning remains a very real hazard for thousands of Rhode Islanders.
Exposure to lead through drinking water is a major source of concern. That’s because right now, in neighborhoods across our state, thousands of lead water lines remain in service.
Lead exposure poses the greatest risk in low-income and historically marginalized communities – places with larger shares of older housing, constructed in the years before lead abatement laws and more likely to have contaminated paint or water lines.
The pandemic has made this disparity clearer than ever.
In 2020, as schools moved to remote instruction because of the coronavirus and young people spent far more time at home, the statewide number of first-time lead poisoning cases among children 6 and younger jumped to 472, up from 388 in 2019.
That increase came despite a decrease in the number of children being tested, indicating the number of cases was likely much higher.
A large majority of the cases occurred in Rhode Island’s cities. Meanwhile, in most of our state’s rural and suburban communities, cases were few or nonexistent.
In the interest of public health and environmental justice, we cannot wait any longer to definitively address this issue. The time has come to fully rid our water systems of lead. That’s why, with the support of the Senate’s leadership team, I’ve introduced the Lead Poisoning Prevention Act.
This important legislation will give new urgency to the replacement of antiquated, unsafe lead pipes. It will help protect the health of all Rhode Islanders. Most of all, it will address a serious threat to the well-being of our children.
The proposal would create a lead water supply replacement program for both public and private service lines, with a requirement that all affected lines are replaced within 10 years. Financial assistance would be provided through the Rhode Island Infrastructure Bank, including no-cost options for property owners.
The bill would require water suppliers to conduct a comprehensive inventory of lead water lines in their service area. It would also establish new notification and reporting requirements for suppliers to ensure transparency in the identification and replacement of service lines containing lead.
Additionally, the bill requires a lead risk assessment be conducted for any home built prior to 2011 as part of any transaction involving the property. Currently, those assessments are required only for homes built prior to 1978.
With unprecedented financial resources available to Rhode Island through the federal infrastructure bill and the American Rescue Plan Act, the present moment offers a rare opportunity for us to accelerate efforts to eliminate lead in water systems.
There will never be a better time to act on this issue. We can put Rhode Islanders to work and make an enormously important investment in the health and future of our children.
Access to safe, lead-free drinking water should never depend on someone’s ZIP code or economic status. No family should have to fear that their home, an environment that should be safe and nurturing, may be poisoning their children.
Ridding Rhode Island of lead water lines is long overdue. After decades of inching forward, let’s seize this moment and finish the job.
Michael J. McCaffrey is a Democrat representing District 29 (Warwick) in the Rhode Island Senate. He serves as the Senate Majority Leader.