Philadelphia: The City of Lead

By Corean Comrade

November 25, 2019

“Pennsylvania has the 6th largest percentage rate for children suffering from lead poisoning and this is only the number who have been formally diagnosed,” said the governor of the state, Tom Wolf. Specifically in Philadelphia, 10 percent of children who have been tested have elevated blood lead levels. This 10 percent mark is 3 times the level recorded in Flint, where over 3 percent of children tested recorded high blood levels of lead. Why hasn’t Philadelphia been in the national headlines for lead crisis?

When the city of Flint, Michigan switched its water source to the highly toxic Flint River in 2014, lead poisoning levels increased dramatically causing national outrage. One day the people of Flint were living life as normal, the next day their water was brown and their kids became sick. People took notice of this change. Yet, in Philadelphia the lead-crisis has been around for decades. Since there was no dramatic change in lead contamination, it doesn’t hit the headlines as much as Flint.

Philly isn’t the only place with lead-poisoning rates higher than Flint, over 3,000 communities are suffering far beyond the small Michigan city. These communities are not receiving the attention, or funding, they require despite having higher rates of lead-poisoning or a larger population. But let’s be honest, even Flint hasn’t received the funding or the change it requires to keep families safe from toxic water sources.

To remind readers of the impacts of lead poisoning: “Lead is a cumulative toxicant that irreversibly affects multiple body systems and makes its way into the blood, particularly
affecting the development of the brain and nervous system as children grow into adolescence and adulthood. Once these high levels of exposure occur in children there is an increased chance of a reduction in IQ, behavioral changes such as reduced attention span, and increased antisocial behavior, among other health effects. There is no safe blood lead concentration for children,” described by the National Nurse-Led Care Consortium (NNLCC).

The Old Housing Problem

The source for lead contamination comes from two main sources: paint and plumbing. Let’s dissect these sources to further understand the lead crisis in Philly.

According to the 2010 Census data, PA ranks third in the nation for the number of housing units built before 1950, when lead was most prevalent in paint and plumbing. It wasn’t until 1978 when the federal government banned consumer uses of lead-containing paint. Some states banned it even earlier, but the problem still haunts millions of people today.

The lead from the paint used before 1978 has leaked into our food and water sources while
also disintegrating into dust, becoming the major source for lead poisoning. According to the
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “lead paint is still present in millions of homes, sometimes under layers of newer paint.” Children often get exposed to this paint when walls and window sills begin to peel, chip or crack. Lead dust is also trapped inside of a house as the old lead-based paint deteriorates. Many people want to renovate their homes and it can create toxic lead dust inside the home.

Lead has also been discovered in the soil at children’s playgrounds in Philly which was traced back to the paint used on the playground equipment. Although the Parks and Recreation Department did not approve, volunteers most likely applied the lead-based paint to maintain a friendly-looking playground for their kids. In most cases, lead-based paint is often the cheapest and most affordable. This lead can be ingested by kids through hand-to-mouth activity.

Lead can also enter our water sources through outdated and crumbling plumbing systems. Homes built before 1986 are more likely to have lead pipes, fixtures and solder. New homes are also susceptible to lead-poisoned plumbing as the EPA states, “new homes are also at risk: even legally “lead-free” plumbing may contain up to eight percent lead.”

The EPA also states the most common problem is with “brass or chrome-plated brass faucets and fixtures with lead solder, from which significant amounts of lead can enter into the water, especially hot water.” With so many fixtures and solders on plumbing due to construction or just old plumbing systems, corrosion is also a factor. Corrosion is when metals dissolve or wear away usually caused by a chemical reaction between your water and plumbing.

In the case for Flint, their water source was contaminated to begin with. But in most cases, like Philly, the two major sources come from paint and plumbing.

The Water Testing Myth

According to reports from Environment America (EA), 22 states including Philadelphia, have received a “F” on water testing. “Most states are failing to protect children from lead in their schools’ drinking water… Several states have no requirements for schools and preschools to address the threat of lead in drinking water,” says EA. Yes, the state is poisoning our kids and they have no way, or interest, in changing things because proactively removing lead from the drinking water will require more funding.

When an average Philly resident researches their own water source, their local water department will most likely show that their tests will have passed federal standards with flying colors. Documents obtained by NBC News reported that most reports are misleading.

For example, the city of Philadelphia has up to 50,000 homes with lead-service lines. These are homes which are known to have lead pipes or some type of lead contamination in their plumbing. In 2014, only 42 homes were tested for their water. The EPA requires the city to test only 40 homes. In addition, most of the 40+ homes tested every year were known to have a “low-risk lead contamination”. The local water department is required to test homes with “high-risk contamination”. The Philadelphia Water Department (PWD)deliberately avoids testing the high-risk homes and only tested the low-risk homes. These reports are therefore, misleading and under-reported.

“Water authorities across the US are systematically distorting water tests to downplay the amount of lead in samples, risking a dangerous spread of the toxic water crisis that has gripped Flint,” reports the Guardian. Water departments across the nation are “legally” abiding by the federal water testing requirements while at the same time misleading the public on the toxicity of their drinking water.

Even the schools participate in misleading the public. Earlier this year, a report by the Philadelphia Tribune stated that a “Philly school knew about toxic lead in drinking water but kept parents in the dark.” Not only is poisoned drinking water discovered in Philly’s schools, but asbestos was found in several schools across the city. Even teachers are being diagnosed with a rare cancer, mesothelioma, caused by exposure to asbestos.

The NNLCC states, “The [Philadelphia] city’s current lead paint disclosure law mandates that property owners ensure their constructed buildings that pre-date 1978 are certified as lead-safe if they are occupied by a child 6 years old or younger. Despite this mandate, many apartments and homes remain untested…children 6 and younger reside in an estimated 22,000 rental properties throughout the city. This alone illustrates the shortfall of untested rental units that need to be certified lead-safe, with the enforcement of this law falling well short of its intended goal.” So, while property owners have a law to somewhat protect families, renters are left on their own. Keep in mind, renters are often living in lower income brackets than property owners. This leads to the next point of inequality and the lead crisis.

Disproportionate Lead Poisoning

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention describes “children who are African-American, living in poverty, enrolled in Medicaid, and living in older housing as having the highest risk for lead exposure. This description is very apt when discussing Philadelphia, as this group, along with Hispanics, face lead exposure at disproportionate rates compared to Caucasians in the city.” Figure 1 by Philadelphia’s Department of Public Health shows a map where people in poverty are more exposed to higher levels of lead in their water sources. Figure 2 shows the housing units built before 1950, which are more likely to have lead exposure.

Figure 1 : Department of Public Health, Poverty and Lead Exposure
Figure 2 : Department of Public Health, Housing units built before 1950 risk higher levels of lead.

Poverty is Philly’s most enduring problem. The city has a poverty rate of over 25 percent. Among the nation’s 10 largest cities, Philly is the highest in poverty. It’s often called the “poorest big city” in the US. We know communities of color are more susceptible to
discrimination of all sorts compared to their white counterparts. Lead poisoning is no different.

The local government representatives play along. The schools play along. The state reps play along. The whole system just allows our children to be poison while living in the richest nation in the world. Where does all that money go? It certainly doesn’t go into providing clean drinking water to poor folks. Philadelphia is often known as the “City of Brotherly Love”. In actuality, Philly is the “City of Lead”.