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Get the lead out: Officials must spring into action when kids' lives are on the line
The funniest lunch I ever had with friends centered on stories of stupid things we'd done as kids sometimes with our whole families. - photo by Lois M. Collins
During the funniest lunch I ever had with friends, we were practically rolling on the ground laughing as we each tried to outdo the others with stories of stupid things we'd done as kids sometimes with our whole family.

One of my friends and his little sister used to put on their swimsuits and stand on the curb so the DDT truck could drive by and envelope them in a cooling mist of DDT pesticide. It's no exaggeration; YouTube even has a video showing the practice of little kids following the pesticide-spray truck or kids in swimming pools being engulfed by a bug-spray bomb. That may not have been harmful, but certainly no one would do it now.

Another friend described how her entire family packed picnic lunches and drove to the Nevada desert to watch the mushroom clouds that formed as a result of above-ground nuclear testing.

Around the table we went, no person left out, describing swimming in ponds that glowed iridescent from sludge we now consider toxic or standing in line to get foods with so many not-so-healthy ingredients that it's stunning we are here to tell the tale.

We all grew up somewhere between the late 50s and the early 70s. Some people call it a more innocent time. It was also a more ignorant time; there were many things we simply didn't know about carcinogens and carbon footprints, pollution and harmful substances and even how our own bodies work best.

Today, we know a lot, though who knows what mysteries remain. And one of the things we know is that lead exposure can be devastating to children. We've known that for a very long time.

It's a cumulative problem, the danger building as the amount ingested does. If you wanted to find a good way to deliver it, something that people drink would be just dandy.

Babies through elementary age are especially vulnerable and can suffer developmental delays, have trouble learning, be sluggish or sick or lose their hearing, among other things on the Centers for Disease Control and Mayo Clinic lists. Babies so poisoned don't grow well. Adults feel a toll that ranges from high blood pressure and stomach aches to creaky joints, generally sore bodies, memory loss, mood issues and mental decline. And for those who want to start families, it can reduce or damage sperm and sometimes result in prematurity or miscarriages.

If you're following what has happened in Flint, Michigan, where some officials allegedly saved money by switching the city's water supply to something that was more affordable but much less clean, resulting in damage to pipes that let lead leach into drinking and bathing water, you have heard the impact of lead.

The question is not so much how something like this happened as how will those we entrust to keep us safe in various positions of authority prevent something comparable from happening again. And when something terrible does, inevitably, happen, how can we make sure the response is appropriate and quick.

Once you know there's a problem, solving it has to greatly outpace any instinct to hide it. That should be true regardless of what the hazard is. Citizens need to be told, too, so they can help protect themselves.

There are some efforts underway in Congress, backed by a petition drive, to require the Environmental Protection Agency to tell communities and citizens right away if lead's detected. For some of the Flint residents, this devastation will perhaps one day be nothing more than fodder for a lunchtime conversation. But not for everyone. That may be the best we can do for this crisis, but what about the next one?

It turns out, picnicking in the shadow of a mushroom cloud or being sprayed repeatedly by pesticides to cool off is only funny if you don't live with any consequences.