How Should We Talk About Flint's Lead Problem?

Dana Milbank writes about Friday's congressional hearing on Flint's water:

In a hearing this week about the poisonous water in Flint, Mich., Rep. Earl L. “Buddy” Carter (R-Ga.) tried to blame the lead-tainted water on the Obama administration’s Environmental Protection Agency. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy explained that, under the law Congress passed, states are in charge of enforcing drinking-water standards.

“The law?” Carter replied, contemptuously. “The law? I don’t think anybody here cares about the law.”

It was an awkward and inadvertent moment of truth. Congress has hamstrung the federal government, giving states the authority to enforce drinking-water standards and all but eliminating the EPA’s power tointervene....It’s a vicious cycle: Washington devolves power to the states. When states screw up, conservatives blame the federal government, worsening the public’s already shaky faith.

....In Flint’s case, an official appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder (R) decided in 2013 to save money by changing the water supply, with disastrous results. The EPA had no say....[Nonetheless] Republican members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee focused their ire on McCarthy.

“I heard calls for resignation. I think you should be at the top of the list,” said Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla.)....Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R-Tenn.) said McCarthy should “consider scrapping” other pending regulations because “it’s clear EPA cannot currently handle the issues on its plate.”

....Chaffetz, the chairman, joined this complaint. When McCarthy explained that, under the law, she had to provide elaborate documentation before overriding state officials, Chaffetz was livid. “Why do we even need an EPA? If you can’t do that?” he asked. “If you want to do the courageous thing,” he said, you “should resign.”

I also wrote about this on Friday, with much the same disgusted tone as Milbank. This prompted an email from a regular reader:

It has really been disappointing to read your pieces on Flint recently. You are dismissive of not only the lead problem, but also fail to acknowledge there was any other problem. Was Flint worse before? Yes, years ago, but lead is still detrimental to health when using untreated Flint river water. Are there other places worse? Yes, but now you are sounding like Steven Hayward at Power Line in dismissing Flint complaints because there are places worse....Put the statistics in perspective but do not give credence they are unworthy of notice or action.

I think it's worth posting my reply, complete and unedited, since I tend to self-censor a bit when I write about this on the blog:

Here's the problem: Virtually everyone is in hysteria over this. The only way to push back is to get people's attention, and that means writing without too much nuance. Under the circumstances, I've actually been pretty restrained.

I've repeatedly acknowledged that there were political/bureaucratic problems—though I'm not convinced the EPA had a big role in this. But on a technical basis, although the lead levels in Flint water were higher than they should have been, they were never wildly high even at the height of the crisis. Today, things seem very close to normal.

Why go on about this? Because we're at a point where the hysteria is doing real damage. Flint residents are still panicked, drinking bottled water and not taking showers. Aside from one or two dozen houses with very high levels, there's just no reason for this. They can go back to normal lives, but no one will let them. I understand why everyone is responding this way (on both sides), but it's genuinely damaging.

One of the reasons I've written about this is because I have some cred on lead poisoning. I very clearly take lead seriously. But the truth is that you can go too far. The 5 m/d level is very conservative, and when you get to the point where there's only 2-3% of kids above it, it just isn't a huge problem. (It's still a problem, and we should aim lower, but it's not a huge problem.)

My take: anyone who's serious about lead should be applauding the improvement in Flint (though it's perfectly fine to skewer the bureaucrats and politicians) and trying to focus the public's attention on places where lead levels are still damagingly high. Otherwise we'll spend a billion dollars replacing Flint's pipes for no reason, clap ourselves on the back for a job well done, and then do nothing more.

I don't expect everyone to agree with this. I'm not sure I always agree with it myself. You can make a good case that generating hysteria is really the only way to get people's attention for a problem as invisible as lead. And there's no question that lead pipes are part of this problem (for example, here's a Post story also from Friday about schools with contaminated drinking fountains).

And yet....the truth is important too. When most families in Flint can go back to leading normal lives, they should be told so. When the bigger problem is contaminated soil and lead paint, people should be told so. When lots of other places have lead levels far higher than Flint all the time, people should be told so. When real progress is possible, people should be told so—and they should be told what real progress means, not fed a bunch of fairy tales.

I understand that saying this stuff can sound dismissive sometimes. I try my best not to take that tone. But when a bandwagon starts picking up too much speed, sometimes you need to speak up and suggest that it change direction a bit.