The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

Lead Poisoning Continues

Oct 25, 2021

On October 20, officials in Hamtramck, a city of 28,000 in the Detroit metropolitan area, announced that elevated levels of lead were found in the city water. The officials offered free water filters to Hamtramck residents.

Even though the filters were made available only from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. the following day, 900 residents lined up to pick one up—and the city ran out of filters after distributing only 700 of them!

The officials should have known better. Lead contamination is not news to Hamtramck residents—the amount of lead in the city’s water has exceeded state and federal lead limits for 11 of the last 30 years.

That doesn’t mean Hamtramck’s water was safe during the remaining 19 years. Cities report test results if water in 10% of the tested households, often a few dozen, exceeds state and federal lead limits. And those limits themselves—such as the federal government’s standard of 15 ppb (parts per billion) of lead in water, or Michigan’s 12 ppb, to go into effect in 2025—are arbitrary anyway. Every expert in the field says that there is no such thing as a safe amount of lead in water. Any small amount of lead entering the human body, especially a child’s body, is known to cause serious life-long harm, such as brain and nervous system damage, and to slow down growth and development.

It’s not just Hamtramck. Since October 8, the city of Benton Harbor has been distributing free bottled water to all residents, paid for by the State of Michigan. In Benton Harbor, tests showed lead levels as high as 889 ppb in recent years. If state officials finally decided to pay for bottled water distribution in Benton Harbor, it’s only because the people of this mostly black, working-class city of 10,000 got organized and protested.

In fact, the whole problem of lead contamination made headlines six years ago only after residents of Flint, another mostly black, working-class city in Michigan, began protesting. City officials had not even bothered to let the people of Flint know about the poisoning of city water until residents themselves found out and began to speak out.

The source of widespread lead contamination in water, not only in Michigan but the whole country, is well-known. Lead pipes are used widely for distributing water to users, lined with a coating that prevents the lead from seeping into the water. But as pipes age and the coating gets corroded, lead starts to leak into the water.

The solution is to replace the aging pipes—starting with the service pipes that bring the water from the mains into houses. But officials everywhere tell people they don’t have the money to do it.

Really?? The non-profit American Water Works Association estimated that it would take 60 billion dollars to replace all lead service pipes in the U.S. That’s a small fraction of what the federal government spends in one year on the military alone, 778 billion dollars in the most recent budget.

And sure enough in Flint, where the population has been pushing the issue, the politicians “found” the money, and the lead pipes are being replaced. Once again, the people of Flint show all of us what it takes to turn the tide.