International attention is focused on the dangerously high levels of lead in Flint, Mich., tap water. But Flint is far from the only American city where residents live with serious environmental hazards. Flint’s water crisis made headlines because residents aggressively advocated for their own health and safety. “If it weren’t for a few dozen residents and a handful of crusading experts who pushed back against the official narrative, we still wouldn’t know the truth,” Anna Maria Barry-Jester wrote in a January 2016 article about the crisis for the FiveThirtyEight blog.
National Institute for Healthy Human Spaces (NIHHS), a Racial & Economic Justice Fund grantee based in Camden, N.J., is a watchdog and advocate for a wide range of environmental justice issues. Just as Flint residents aimed a spotlight on their lead-poisoned water supply, NIHHS worked in the early 2000s to document and publicize the lead levels in Camden’s public schools. The school district refused to turn over documentation about lead levels, and NIHHS had to obtain a federal court order. When they finally received the data, they discovered that “the lead levels were astronomical,” NIHHS executive director Roy Jones said.
Armed with this information, NIHHS leaders held several town meetings to let the public know that children were getting lead poisoning from drinking tap water at school. “Because of our work, the state had to intervene and address the issue,” Jones said. “Today, all of the kids in the district drink bottled water as a result of our advocacy work.” It has already been more than a decade since NIHHS and their allies secured this victory for Camden’s children, and water coolers and drinking cups are still a $75,000 line item in the school district’s budget.
To fix toxic drinking water problems for the long term, Camden and other cities need to “literally rebuild all of the infrastructure,” Jones said. In January Philadelphia Councilwoman Helen Gym called for hearings on Philadelphia’s water supply and noted that the city’s aging infrastructure deserves extra monitoring.
Environmental health hazards such as lead in drinking water disproportionately affect communities of color and low-income communities. According to the CDC, African American children are three times more likely than white children to have elevated levels of lead in their blood.
NIHHS is now turning its focus to Philadelphia and Chester and will start demanding water quality reports from those school districts. Jones noted that community-based organizing is important locally and in Flint. “Flint’s attention came from environmental justice people, concerned citizens, and a couple of legislators dealing with water quality issue,” he said. “Utilities and the government are supposed to be in the business of protecting us, but they don’t do anything until we bring it to their attention.”