By editorial board • 

Flint water contamination crisis sounds warning bell everywhere

As a state-directed economy move, the bankrupt, economically depressed Rust Belt city of Flint, Michigan, switched water sources in April 2014. In the process, it inadvertently set off something that promises to ultimately prove beneficial — a coast-to-coast analysis of lead levels in school water sources.

School districts in Yamhill County, the Portland Metro Area and other parts of Oregon are joining national counterparts in a summer testing spree. The aim is to address problem areas before classes resume in the fall.

McMinnville released its results Monday, and they were encouraging.

Lead levels exceeded the federal standard of 15 parts per billion in only 14 of 400 samples, only one from a drinking fountain. The rest were from faucets, which are much less likely to serve as drinking sources for vulnerable students.

Lead was banned from paint in 1978 and gasoline in 1996, but residues continue to pose health hazards. And lead can still be found in batteries, pottery, plastics, cosmetics, roofing materials, soldered fittings and, sometimes, imported toys and jewelry.

The problem is, lead exposure can cause neurological, developmental and cardiovascular problems in almost inconceivably minute amounts. It is most closely associated with developmental delays and learning difficulties in children, particularly in low-income neighborhoods marked by aging homes, schools and water systems.

The Flint crisis exploded in the fall of 2015, when blood work revealed lead levels had doubled in local children since the city was switched to highly corrosive and inadequately treated water from the Flint River. It led locally to criminal indictments, an avalanche of litigation and intense political fallout, and nationally to a scramble to ensure safe home and school supplies elsewhere.

In Flint, a blighted industrial city with thousands of lead and lead-galvanized service lines, contamination in drinking water measured as high as an off-the-charts 13,000 parts per billion.

The lowest level registered in a Virginia Tech study was 200 parts per billion, with more than half the readings at more than 1,000. One of the researchers said, “We had never seen such sustained high levels of lead in 25 years of work.”

Nothing remotely similar has turned up so far in Oregon. However, the Portland School District’s failure to acknowledge and address known hot spots dating back a dozen years led its superintendent to first announce her pending retirement, followed by her immediate resignation.

Parents, citizens and voters have made it clear, and rightfully so, that they aren’t going to stand for contaminated drinking water.


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