This post from guest blogger Garrett Pearce.

“I felt like I poisoned my daughter…and I did,” a tearful Yaquelin Vargas, longtime resident of Flint, Michigan, told the audience at APHA’s January 24 panel discussion, “Drinking Water and Lead Service Lines: Partnering to Protect Public Health.”

The livestreamed, recorded event took place at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University. It was co-sponsored by the Children’s Environmental Health Network, the Environmental Defense Fund and the National Center for Healthy Housing. Amanda Reddy, executive director of the National Center for Healthy Housing, moderated the event.

For years, lead paint was considered the biggest risk factor for lead exposure in homes. But the 2016 Flint water crisis pushed drinking water as a means of exposure into the national spotlight. Vargas and the other residents of Flint did not imagine that their drinking water could harm their children’s brain development, contributing to lower IQs, as well as learning and behavioral problems.

Lead can enter drinking water when pipes and plumbing fixtures that contain lead corrode, especially where the water has high acidity or low mineral content. And although Congress banned the use of lead pipes nationwide in 1986, according to the Lead Service Line Replacement Collaborative, lead service lines still connect the plumbing of over 6 million homes to water mains under the street.

Dean of the Milken Institute, Lynn Goldman, opened the panel of LSLR Collaborative members by praising the public health field for forming the Collaborative to accelerate voluntary LSL replacement in communities across the US. However, she also stressed the need for federal policy changes to strengthen and clarify the 1991 Lead and Copper Rule, in addition to community outreach and education.

Vargas was pregnant in 2014, before lead in the water became public knowledge. She began noticing rashes and hair loss, and black spots and a gel-like substance on her body when showering. The city initially insisted its water quality was fine, and Vargas’s doctor did not take her complaints seriously.

About a year later, the Flint crisis became front-page news. Vargas learned that her daughter’s health complications were due to lead poisoning that she had unintentionally passed through her breastmilk.

Panelist Jean Shultz, environmental and disease control specialist with the Milwaukee Health Department, spoke about her department’s citywide outreach plan, developed when a study found increased lead water levels in homes after LSLs were connected to main relays. The program centered on community education and engagement of local environmental and advocacy groups to increase voluntary LSL replacement, with a focus on childcare facilities.

Shultz discussed challenges, such as nonresponsive property owners, and addressed the fact that the MHD’s Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program has recently come under fire for mishandling test data that shows alarmingly high lead levels in children. Since this involved a different part of the department, Shultz could not speak much on the topic, however.

Cynthia McCarthy of the Cincinnati Health Department said Flint served as a wakeup call for her organization. It knew that around 1 in 5 children in certain areas of Cincinnati had lead poisoning, but it did not initially look to water as a source during site inspections. After Flint, CHD partnered with Cincinnati Water Works to create outreach programs addressing lead exposure.

Cathy Bailey of Cincinnati Water Works said the city is implementing a two-tiered approach to LSL replacement. Tier 1 works to increase community awareness of LSLs, offering free lead testing and educating residents on what steps they can take. Tier 2 involves a 15-year program to completely remove LSLs from water systems. Bailey said this was an urgent need, as Ohio has one of the highest LSL counts by state in the US.

The event concluded with a Q&A session in which the panel — along with Tom Neltner, chemicals policy director of the Environmental Defense Fund — answered questions from the event’s Twitter followers and in-person attendees.

The event highlighted the importance of cross-collaboration between organizations and communities. By promoting outreach and advocating for federal policy change, public health organizations can help increase the rate of LSL replacement and help make homes safer and healthier environments in which to live.

You can watch a recording of the panel here. To continue the conversation, tweet us @EH_4_All using #SafeWater.