Asinof: It Is Hard To Run With The Weight Of Lead


In 2016 and again in 2017, the R.I. House of Representatives created a study commission to look at lead contamination in drinking water in Rhode Island. Yet the study commission was never convened and did not even meet once. Why was that?

Trying to get an answer to that question has proven to be quite difficult. The spokesman for House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, Larry Berman, attempted to put the blame the decision on alleged missing input from the R.I. Department of Health, which, the agency spokesman, Joseph Wendelken, said was inaccurate, providing documentation to back up his rebuttal, including letters sent by R.I. Department of Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott to legislators.

[All of this was reported on in great detail by ConvergenceRI.]

In turn, when a number of individual legislators were questioned about what happened, a few parroted back the same, questionable statement that originated with Berman.

In the last week, a number of news stories about lead contamination in drinking water surfaced, bringing the lack of meetings by the study commission back into focus.

  •      The most recent Providence Water analysis found elevated levels of lead in drinking water in some homes and buildings, as ecoRI News reported on Aug. 31. Since 2007, Providence Water has routinely exceeded EPA action levels for the agency’s lead and copper rule. While drinking water that leaves the treatment plant in Scituate has no detectable levels of lead, the contaminants result from the distribution system which supplies about 60 percent of Rhode Island with its drinking water, including service pipes and plumbing fixtures such as faucets, valves, brass pipes and pipe solder.

The news about the analysis was picked up by a number of outlets; however, there was no mention in any of the stories about the study commission that never met.

The problem with lead contamination in drinking water is a national problem, not one limited to Rhode Island.

  •      In Detroit, some 50,000 students returning to public school classrooms on Tuesday, Sept. 4, discovered that drinking fountains [bubblahs in Rhode Island vernacular] in the schools were shut off, after elevated levels of lead and copper forced the district to shut off the water supply to the schools.

The district superintendent, Nikolai Vitti, cited safety concerns for staff and students.

“I am turning off all drinking water in our schools until a deeper and broad analysis can be conducted to determine the long-term solutions,” he said, according to a story in the Guardian. Bottled water and coolers will be provided so that third does not go unquenched, Vitti said.

Detroit’s public-school building infrastructure is in shambles after years of neglect. Sound familiar?

And, of course, Flint, Mich., which is only 57 miles north of Detroit, still does not have access to safe drinking water through its water supply system. Flint is serving as an ongoing national laboratory for what happens when you poison a generation of children with lead in drinking water supplies.

Vulnerabilities on display

The vulnerabilities of Rhode Island’s drinking water systems have been on full display in the last week, as boil water advisories have continued for South Kingstown and Narragansett because of bacterial contamination.

Narragansett Bay and its tributaries are under siege, not just from bacteria and nitrogen but also from plastics and industrial toxins and the impacts of climate change.

The recent breakdown of a sewage pipe in Warwick resulted in an estimated 300,000 gallons of raw sewage being released, forcing shell fishing to be shut down in upper Narragansett Bay.

Back to lead

The issues of lead contamination in drinking water and from lead paint in older housing stock in Rhode Island are not just about the need to remove the lead and other contaminants so as not to poison children and adults. It is not just that there are no safe levels for lead; it is how lead harms the brain functions over a lifetime.

There are persistent, profound and complex health, educational and behavior health problems linked to childhood lead poisoning. There are numerous research studies that have been conducted, looking at Rhode Island children, which map out the problem:

  •     Children who have been afflicted with lead poisoning often have difficulty with educational attainment, such as third-grade reading levels.
  •     As the children age, there are behavioral health issues linked to lead poisoning, including increased rates of school absenteeism, increased numbers of detention, violence and incarceration.

Translated, if you want to improve third-grade reading levels and correct chronic school absenteeism, or if you want to improve behavioral health outcomes for children in Rhode Island, the first priority to pursue should focus on lead removal.

There are some encouraging developments on the lead removal front:

  •      Last week, a new long-term study, published by JAMA Pediatrics, found that fixing peeling paint and removing other household sources of lead during the mother’s pregnancy can reduce levels of dust lead in homes to levels significantly lower than previously deemed achievable.

“There is no safe level of lead,” said Joseph Braun, associate professor of epidemiology at Brown University’s School of Public Health and lead author of the study. “We were able to achieve dust lead levels considerably lower than the current EPA standards for lead remediation and at levels where far fewer children are at risk of being lead-poisoned in their homes,” according a news report by Brown University.

  •      Sen. Jack Reed recently announced nearly $2 million in new federal grants for Pawtucket and Providence to identify and address lead-based paint hazards in public housing.

A connection too far

The R.I. Office of the Health Insurance Commissioner announced on Tuesday, Sept. 4, the establishment of a new fund to support and supplement the state’s behavioral health care system, which has been overwhelmed by demand in recent years.

The new fund will be administered by the Rhode Island Foundation; Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island will contribute $1 million a year over the next five years.

Additional contributions to the fund may come from other sources following the completion of market conduct examination of the state’s four major health insurers, according the news release making the announcement.

Still, the issues remains: while no one can argue with the increasing demands for behavioral health care services in Rhode Island are swamping existing resources, and directing more resources can provide a better clinical response to the existing indications, at what point does the system begin to look at the some of the potential underlying causes: childhood lead poisoning and the impact on brain development; and the incidence of toxic stress in Rhode Island in young infants and children and the way influences future behavioral health challenges.

[There was an effort to develop pediatric screening tools for toxic stress in Rhode Island, but that was apparently abandoned because of a perceived lack of interventions.]

As the Grateful Dead once sang in “New Speedway Boogie”: I don’t know, but I been told / It’s hard to run with the weight of gold / Other hand I have heard it said, / It’s just as hard with the weight of lead.

Richard Asinof
Richard Asinof is an award-winning journalist who frequently writes about health, innovation, science, technology and community in Rhode Island. He is the founder and editor of ConvergenceRI, an online newsletter offering news and analysis at the convergence of health, science, technology and innovation in Rhode Island. He can be reached at