At the first mention of lead in the United States, almost every mind immediately turns to the ongoing crisis in Flint, Michigan. It is important to remember, though, that it is the cause of the disaster that makes Flint so unique, not the troubles with lead. Flint is facing a crisis because government officials switched the water supply to save money. The cause was extraordinary, but for many people in this country, the problem of lead in the air, water and soil is one that is all too familiar. In a 2014 analysis of children in 27 states, 12 of those states had a high proportion of children with blood-lead levels above the 5 μg/dL level specified as acceptable by the CDC. No level of lead is safe, but levels over 5 μg/dL are particularly worrisome.
Our collective understanding of lead and its effects has changed dramatically over the last century. Once called a “gift of god” lead was added to gasoline and household paint. Around the beginning of the 20th century, public health officials and psychologists began warning of the harm caused by lead in paints, and lead paint was banned in a succession of European countries beginning with France in 1919. Under pressure from industry, the US did not ban lead paint until the 1970s, and was still sold by subsidiaries of US companies just a few years ago. The problems with leaded gasoline were also identified by the 1920s, but had to wait to be addressed for several decades. By the late 1970s in Europe and the US, lead was finally being phased out from paint, gas and lead pipes, a process that lasted until the 1990s in some states. And of course, many companies headquartered in countries where lead is banned continue to benefit from selling lead-laced gasoline in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
Although it was 40 years ago that lead was banished from these common substances, we are still seeing the effects. The bulk of the lead remaining in our surroundings resides in the paint on walls of buildings constructed anytime before the 1980s. Additionally, in cities that experienced high automobile traffic in the middle of the 20th century, the lead from gasoline that escaped in the exhaust has settled into the soil. When children play in the dirt, or when construction sites excavate the land, many of the lead-containing molecules are released back into the air.
Lead toxicity is measured in micrograms per deciliter of blood (μg/dL). Immediately before the federal regulations took effect to eliminate the use of lead, the median blood level concentration for kids was 15 μg/dL. By 1991, only about 1 in 11 US children had a blood lead level above the then-accepted level of 10 μg/dL. However, today, the CDC uses a reference level of 5 μg/dL to indicate concern for the child’s lead toxicity, and they note that no level of lead in the blood has truly been shown to be safe.
The Flint water crisis has brought a new spotlight to the ongoing impacts the country faces from lead. Schools across the country are susceptible to a similar type of lead poisoning. EPA regulations for lead testing only apply to about 10% of school systems. Just in the city of Newark, NJ, 30 schools servicing 17,000 students had lead in the water from drinking fountains. While the initial water supply is untainted, the old pipes and parts of the water fountains deposit the molecule into the water. Just last year, LAUSD spent $19.8 million to retrofit 48,000 water fountains presenting a small, yet persistent threat to blood lead levels. Public Health officials caution, though, that the public should not feel free from the threat of lead solely because the water tests negative for it.
It is clear that lead still surrounds us and impacts a frighteningly large portion of our society, but it is imperative to understand whom within our population this crisis impacts. One silver lining to the Flint water crisis has been the attention that it has brought to the systemic and environmental racism and classism that is tied up in the issue. If we think about the sources of lead, it is rather simple to understand the groups of people impacted.
The lead pipes tend to be found in old housing and schools. The soil tends to be in the inner cities that have experienced years of automobile traffic. The residual lead paint is primarily found in old, dilapidated housing in urban areas. In each case, the urban, minority, lower-socioeconomic-status population tends to experience the brunt of the lead toxicity. Middle-class individuals living in predominantly white suburbs with new houses and schools do not encounter anything like that level of risk.
Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have repeated several times on the presidential campaign trail: if the happenings in Flint, Michigan were occurring in a white, middle-class suburb, the problem would already be fixed. When we couple the population encountering lead with the previous post outlining the effects of lead poisoning, the systemic racism becomes even more apparent. Lead impacts the mental capacity of those living in poor inner cities, and they are then predisposed to commit crimes and to have reduced ability to find gainful employment. In the next discussions, we will analyze what is being done to rectify the situation and whether the efforts are working.