Lead in the Water: A Tale of Social and Environmental Injustice | Medical Education and Training | JAMA Forum Archive | JAMA Network
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JAMA Forum Archive, 2012-2019: Health policy commentary from leaders in the field
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Lead in the Water: A Tale of Social and Environmental Injustice

In 1854, British physician John Snow famously wrote, “The most terrible outbreak of cholera which ever occurred in this kingdom, is probably that which took place in Broad Street, Golden Square, and the adjoining streets, a few weeks ago.” Snow linked cholera to polluted water flowing from the Broad Street pump. City officials removed the pump handle and the cholera epidemic suddenly ended. Cholera is one of many gastrointestinal illnesses caused by drinking water carrying disease-causing microbes. In 2000, for example, hundreds of Milwaukee residents became ill when they drank city water contaminated with cryptosporidium.

Pathogens are not the only health hazard lurking in drinking water. Tap water can also contain lead, which is devastating to children’s developing brains. A deteriorating water system infrastructure built in the 19th century is the culprit; drinking water service pipes were often lined with lead. As David Bellinger, PhD, of Harvard Medical School in Boston, explains, the very word “plumbing” derives from the Latin for lead because lead-based water distribution systems date back to Roman times. Over the years, corrosive water running through lead-lined pipes has caused many of these old pipes across the country to leach lead into our drinking water.

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