Lead Poisoning Is an Education Equity Issue

By Samuel Wilson // November 11, 2021

On Friday, November 5, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. This historic measure will allocate $1.2 trillion to fixing and improving key infrastructure across the nation, including investments in roads, bridges, railways, high-speed internet, ports, and public transit. Notably, the bill also includes $55 billion in water infrastructure, which includes $15 billion for replacing lead pipes. This is incredibly significant because of the dangers associated with lead in water, especially for children, and the resulting urgency that should be felt for ensuring that all Americans have access to clean, safe, lead-free water.

Probably the most well-known, notorious example of lead poisoning in America is that of Flint Michigan. In April 2014, in efforts to save money, the city decided to switch its water supply to the local Flint River. This decision lead to one of the most infamous public health scandals in recent memory, as thousands of the town’s residents were now using water with dangerously high levels of lead, due to the polluted river water corroding the lead pipes which it ran through.

Although this was probably the most well-known example of widespread lead exposure in modern-day America, the unfortunate reality is that lead exposure is nothing new, and not confined to just one city or area. Lead exposure occurs much too often all around this country, including in schools.  A significant number of American public schools still have lead in their water. This is particularly alarming because of the deleterious impact lead exposure has on children’s health and development.

Children are particularly prone to the dangers of lead poisoning because their brains are still developing and their digestive systems absorb more of it. Studies demonstrate that early exposure to lead in children can result in several adverse effects, including decreased brain function and impaired ability to learn. This can result in lower test scores and, over time, even decreased productivity and wages, having a potential adverse effect on the long-term outcomes of affected students. Furthermore, studies indicate that even minimal exposure to lead can have harmful effects, and even decreases in lead exposure from already low amounts can improve test results.

Given the clearly adverse effects that lead can have on children, and how long these harmful effects have been known, it is concerning and highly disappointing that there are still schools in our country with lead in their water. SEF President and CEO Raymond Pierce highlights the shocking prevalence of lead exposure in U.S. schools in his latest Forbes column. The article mentions not just how lead exposure is all too prevalent in schools, but how many schools unfortunately do not know if or to what degree it may be present in their water.

Unfortunately, African American students, and especially those from low-income families, are more likely to be exposed to lead. This, along with other ways in which these students may already face inequalities or be marginalized, makes in more difficult for them to receive a high-quality education and the opportunities that come with that education. Because education plays a central role in providing access to range of other opportunities, inequities in education remain one of the most pervasive drivers of systemic inequality in America, continuing to perpetuate gaps in opportunity and inequities in other areas. Ensuring equity in education is necessary if we are to achieve equity in the rest of society.

While the actual process of ensuring equitable access to education is far from simple and involves work across many areas, ensuring that children have access to clean, lead-free water is an important and necessary step forward. When children have healthy growth and development, they do better in school. Removing that hurdle to achieving equity in education allows us to focus with greater intensity on other barriers and challenges students face.

Unfortunately, the $15 billion in the infrastructure bill will not be enough to fully address this issue. For example, in Jackson, Mississippi alone, the city government estimates they will need about $1 billion to replace their lead pipes, but the whole state of Mississippi is only being allocated $459 million. Additionally, the Natural Resources Defense Council estimates that there may be as many as 12 million lead service lines in the U.S. that need to be replaced. Our nation ultimately needs a much greater investment in ending lead exposure. President Biden’s Build Back Better Act includes another $30 billion to completely replace lead service lines. While that bill faces a greater struggle to pass in Congress, this investment is a necessary one in our children’s health and education and our nation’s future.

It is crucial that we work together to remove any barriers in the way of equitable access to high-quality education. Working together to prevent children from being exposed to lead in water is a great place to start. Luckily, we do not need to rely solely on the federal government to address lead poisoning. There are other entities aware of the severity of this situation and taking actions to help address it. One such organization is RTI International. RTI’s Clean Water for US Kids initiative sends lead testing kits to schools across the nation, with instructions for using them. RTI tests the water samples for lead and provides the test results to the schools and school districts. RTI also publishes the results online so parents know whether or not and how much lead is present in the water at their children’s schools or daycare centers.

While it doesn’t have the capacity to take action to remove lead where it is found in drinking water, the organization does offer recommendations for doing so. Ultimately, schools, daycare centers, and school districts much identify sources of funding to remove lead, such as the funds in the infrastructure bill and those which might come through Build Back Better. That said, testing water is an important first step in addressing and ending lead poisoning.

The effects that lead can have on children are devastating, long-lasting, and irreversible. Lead poisoning can result in lowered cognitive ability, as well as other health issues, negatively affecting children’s ability to learn and do well in schools, and their opportunities later in life. This combined with the inequitable distribution of this public health hazard creates a significant barrier to achieving equitable education for all. This issues must be properly and thoroughly addressed if our country is to move forward in any fair and just manner. While it is lamentable that we are still dealing with this issue at such a large scale, these new efforts to address the lead problem can offer us some encouragement and hope. If we are to address this, there needs to be cooperation. Going forward, efforts by different actors such as governments, schools, nonprofits, and the continued advocacy of civil society groups and concerned individuals alike, will go a long way to help create a future free from the dangers of lead, and where we can move on to address other pressing issues in education equity.

Samuel Wilson is SEF’s current Quaker Voluntary Service Fellow.