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What’s Needed Most For Safe Drinking Water? Foresight.

Temple University College of Public Health Dean Laura Siminoff on Water Infrastructure

Laura Siminoff, Dean of the College of Public Health and Laura H. Carnell Professor of Public Health, says legislators must think broadly about water infrastructure.

It’s encouraging to me that even in an era of partisanship, political leaders are still capable of reaching across the aisle to address critical public health issues. That was made clear last month, when the Senate voted 95-3 to pass a bill that would dedicate $270 million for water infrastructure repairs in cities like Flint, Michigan, where residents are still filtering dangerous levels of lead from their home tap water. The Senate vote is a critical step in the right direction—but more must be done.

What happened in Flint is a warning to us all, and must give us pause to consider the safety of our own local water supply. Water infrastructure across the country is aging. And judging by recent findings of toxic chromium in tap water across Pennsylvania and New Jersey, contaminated water is not an isolated problem. In Philadelphia—one of the oldest cities in the nation—we would do well to support broader funding that ensures access to clean water.

We know that exposure to lead can have profoundly damaging neurological effects, especially for children. Worse still, some of the cognitive effects of lead poisoning may not manifest for years after exposure—meaning that it is difficult to predict the extent of long-term health impacts for residents of cities like Flint.

But that doesn’t stop public health experts from trying to get ahead of the problem. Roger Ideishi, an associate professor of occupational therapy at the college, has traveled to Flint to address the population-scale effects of lead poisoning. Ideishi is working with local arts institutions there to help them plan public programming that is accessible to visitors of all cognitive and sensory abilities. Creating this inclusiveness is critically important for a future in which more residents of Flint could face extra challenges caused by childhood lead exposure.  

The Senate’s bill for new infrastructure is only the beginning of a solution for Flint’s residents. In order for this funding to be secured, a similar bill must pass in the U.S. House of Representatives, where there is less bi-partisan support and no clear timeline for a vote. The residents of Flint cannot wait, and their wellbeing should not be subordinated to politics.

I urge lawmakers to act quickly in approving funds for safer water infrastructure. Even more important, I urge them to fight for more funding like this in the years to come. $270 million may sound like a lot, but it is a drop in the bucket compared to the long-term societal costs from wide-spread lead exposure. Taking steps now to prevent future problems is smarter, more cost-effective, and healthier. Let’s take the opportunity to learn from what’s already happened, so that the same mistakes are not made again.

Posted:  October 6, 2016