Inequality Starts
at the Water Tap

In Boston, outdated lead-piping feeds much of the city contaminated drinking water, disproportionately affecting low-income, minority neighborhoods and residents.

By Thomas Herron, Madelaine Millar, Anna Sorokina, and Owen Soule

The effects of lead poisoning can be detrimental to a child’s development, though it is something completely out of their control, especially depending on what neighborhood they may happen to live in. Lead poisoning, often through contamination of clean drinking water, is a problem throughout much of the United States, and Boston is no exception.

David Rodriguez, who was poisoned as a child, had this exact experience. Lead poisoning made it harder for him to focus in school, get work done, or even sit still. Rodriguez, stated in a video testimonial by his representation’s law firm, Levy Law, was unable to finish school, in large part because it was difficult for him to be in classes with younger students who were “poking fun at [him] and making it harder for [him] to learn.”

In the short-term, lead poisoning causes hyperactivity, irritability, impatience, and lower performance in reading, language, and math -- all of which can lead to bullying and a sense of inferiority for vulnerable children and teens. Long-term consequences of lead poisoning include decreased IQ, higher dropout rates, lower career prospects and lower lifetime earnings.

The mistakes made when much of the country’s sewer systems were originally implemented still have an impact today, limiting access to safe, uncontaminated drinking water, as lead pipes were actually encouraged in construction throughout much of the country. Old, unrenovated residential buildings remain common through much of the United States and Boston is no exception to the widespread use of outdated piping. Citywide, there are 4,500 properties fed by lead pipes. A resident’s likelihood of having access to clean water depends on factors like neighborhood, income and even race.

Income, Race and Renter Percentage in Boston's Most Affected Neighborhoods

While it can be difficult to pinpoint the exact source of contamination, the vast majority of lead poisoning cases in Boston come from exposure to lead paint in homes built before 1978, most before 1950, but up to 10% come from other causes including waterborne lead poisoning. Although relatively few Boston residents have lead poisoning, thousands of have elevated levels of lead in their blood.

Dr. Nandini Sengupta of the Dimock Center, a health clinic in Roxbury, has been treating lead poisoning patients for 26 years. For the most part, these patients have slightly elevated blood lead levels, not rising to a diagnosis of lead poisoning. Sengupta treats them with iron and talks to them about where they may be getting the lead. The iron treatment typically takes 6 months until the lead poisoning levels retreat, and the patients are almost always symptom free. She calls lead poisoning a “relatively small problem,” saying that in recent years she has received fewer than 10 patients annually. Sengupta says her patients are all under the age of six, roughly half African-American and half Latino, from Roxbury or Dorchester, and 70% are Medicaid eligible.

(EBLL = Elevated Blood Lead Levels)(Concentrat = Concentration of Lead Pipes)

This interactive map compares the location of lead pipes in Boston with factors like race, income, neighborhood housing prices, and instances of lead poisoning.

Sharon Gifford, a nurse who works in the Mass Department of Public Health’s Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program, has spent 35 years monitoring lead poisoning in the statewide database. Gifford reports all of the high blood lead levels to the doctors, advises follow up, and assigns the patient’s family to a home inspector and lead educator. It can take months for a building to be brought into compliance. Gifford says “The most important treatment for lead poisoning is doing the inspection and the de-leading to eliminate the source of lead.”

Gifford has not yet seen a lead poisoning case from water from lead pipes and believes this is because the water is treated properly which “prevents the lead getting into the water from the pipes.”

Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. Today, lead pipes are coated with an orthophosphate protective layer to prevent contamination. This layer can be eroded by improperly treated water, making it much more likely that lead gets into the water - This is the reason for the ongoing problem in Flint, MI, and victims of lead poisoning will tell you otherwise.

Gifford says though, that the only time she’s seen children get exposed to lead from the water is from samovars – coffee urns used in the Middle East and Russia. Families heat them up all day long and use them for coffee, tea and baby formula. Since they are produced overseas in regions that have less strict lead laws than the present-day U.S., the inside of many of the samovars contain lead. “Every time the family drinks from the samovar they expose themselves to lead,” Gifford said.

Edwin Jimenez, who got lead poisoning at seven years of age, had a similar experience to David Rodriguez, and also turned to Levy Law to right the wrongs lead poisoning had caused in his life. From a young age, Rodriguez remembers that everything was more difficult for him. In his video testimonial on Levy Law’s website, Jimenez did not finish school either and had very low prospects before his settlement in 2016 for $2.5 million, since he knows that he is “not capable of getting or keeping a job.”

Attorney Corey Stern at Levy Konigsberg, who is experienced with prosecuting lead poisoning cases, says that “What lead poisoning steals from a child is a child’s potential.” The pain and suffering from lead poisoning is not only physical, but “genuinely emotional,” he said.

Lead poisoning can be the fault of many different authorities, depending on what type of housing one lives in and where the lead stems from, as some of Levy’s clients have sued the city, National Grid, their local housing authority, and private landlords.

This correlation graph sheds light on factors associated with an increased risk of lead poisoning.

Boston is home to one of the country’s strongest anti-lead programs, and a lot has been done to reduce and eventually, to eliminate instances of lead poisoning as Mayor Marty Walsh has allowed affected residents to apply for forgivable loans up to $8500. The city has also made it possible to receive professional advice from lead specialists and the opportunity to receive possible lead removal tax credits. .

The city still has a long way to go before it can call itself lead-pipe-free, as much of the remaining lead pipes in Boston are under the jurisdiction of private land-lords and until the city enacts legislation to pressure these landlords to get up to date, people of color and those affected by poverty remain vulnerable.

Produced by students of the Northeastern University School of Journalism. © 2019