This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
While Utahns can be relieved to not be drinking the water in Flint, Mich., Emma Penrod's Tribune report April 17 did not evoke confidence that our public schools are paying much attention to lead pipes. Despite strong evidence that should be peeling back our complacency, so far no one else in Utah is paying much attention, either to lead, or to the many other well known neurotoxins our children are exposed to.
A national investigation found 2,000 water systems in all 50 states, including Utah, were delivering water with lead levels that exceed the EPA standard of 15 parts per billion. A few towns had lead levels higher than Flint. Any home built before 1980 is likely to contain some lead plumbing. But the risk may be even higher in new homes because lead soldering is still often used on new copper piping. It takes about five years for mineral deposits to build up, insulating water from that lead. The EPA says you can assume any building less than five years old has lead-contaminated water.
Unfortunately, EPA requirements for lead testing are absurdly inadequate. In fact, Flint passed those tests. The scandal broke because one resident didn't believe the results. Moreover, water authorities across the U.S. are actually gaming the tests by requiring "pre-flushing" for several minutes and other techniques which reduce the amount of lead in the samples. The American Water Works Association found that if water was tested the way most people use their faucets, without flushing, 96 million Americans could be found to be drinking water with lead above the EPA standard.
But the EPA standards for water and air pollution are themselves not all they are cooked up to be. The EPA, CDC and American Academy of Pediatrics all declare there is no safe amount of lead exposure. None. So why does the EPA have "standards" that still allow it? As with many government regulations, they are out of date, out of sync with current science and watered down by political clout of industry or the practical difficulty of achieving those standards. A recent study showed that for every .19 ug/dl of lead in the blood, IQs of teenagers dropped one point. The average lead level was 1.71 ug/dl, meaning the average adolescent had lost 8 IQ points from lead exposure at far below "toxic" or even abnormal levels.
While lead in our water deserves all this new attention, other sources of lead are largely ignored. Over 20 years, Kennecott's smelter will release 125,000 pounds of lead into the air over Salt Lake. Small airplane aviation fuel has lead in it. Lead paint is still a serious threat to children living in older homes, or homes under renovation. Artificial turf, playground surfaces made with crumbled tires and old or cheap toys are often contaminated with lead.
And lead is hardly the only neurotoxin that is wide spread. Mercury in coal power plant pollution may be up to 1,000 times more harmful than lead. Thirty percent of American women now harbor enough mercury to affect the brain of any baby they might conceive. Numerous studies show pesticides cause brain damage in children and trigger neurologic diseases in adults. Utah sends thousands of children to school every day inhaling exhaust from old diesel buses every mile of the way. Air pollution attacks the brain, and chemicals called PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons), high in diesel exhaust, industrial pollution and wood smoke, harm fetal and childhood brain development, reducing brain size and function, documented by MRI scans, EEGs and intelligence tests.
Medical experts have identified an alarming global trend in impaired brain development and behavior in children, attributable to environmental neurotoxins in our air, water, food and consumer goods, calling it a "silent pandemic." Yet Utah has no active program to test infants, nursing or pregnant mothers or schoolchildren for lead or any other neurotoxins, or any public policy to monitor or curtail their exposure.
Our Legislature is throwing millions down a pipe dream of taking over federal land assets but won't spare a penny to address lead pipes, exhaust pipes, smokestacks or anything that is silently eroding the state's most important asset our children's potential. A Legislature with more intelligent priorities should be more than a liberal pipe dream.
Dr. Brian Moench is president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment.