What It Would Take to Flint-Proof the Nation’s Water System

March 7, 2016, 1:20 AM UTC
APTOPIX Flint Water
Flint resident Sarah Truesdail holds her daughter Gabriella Venegas, 5, as she screams out with tears rolling down her face while a health official pricks her finger with a needle for a free lead test on Monday, Feb. 8, 2016 at Carriage Town Ministries in Flint. Molina Healthcare provided children up to six years of age with free lead testing, as well as water filters for families to take home and install. "She take baths in the water, and my daughter takes a lot of baths. Just recently she's been having stomachaches. I took her to the emergency room but they said she was OK. She missed school today. There's something wrong with her," Truesdail said. "We don't drink it. Bathing in it is supposed to be safe. But if it's safe, why do you have to limit the time? And you're breathing the steam when it's hot and the vapors enter your body through the air? We just don't know how it's affecting us. I'm a little worried for the lead test. I'm thinking she doesn't have lead poisoning, but it's just worrying me. Parents need to get their kids lead tested - better safe than sorry."(Jake May/The Flint Journal-MLive.com via AP)
Photograph by Jake May — AP

The trouble with trying to solve the country’s lead problem is that all the easy fixes have already been done. “Yes, if we could replace all of our 100-year-old water mains overnight, we’d gladly do it,” says Gary Burlingame of the Philadelphia water department. But such projects can carry a steep political and economic price tag. Here’s what it would cost to put a dent in the lead exposure of American kids:

$1 trillion

To make all U.S. pipe replacements deemed “urgent” by the American Society of Civil Engineers

$216 billion

To perform lead-paint abatement on the 24 million at-risk homes, at an average cost of $9,000 per home

$3 billion

To treat the estimated 535,000 children with injurious levels of lead in their blood

$18 million

To test the soil in the 13,500 playgrounds in the 100 largest U.S. cities

A version of this article appears in the March 1, 2016 issue of Fortune.

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