We’ve all read about the lead-laden water in Flint, Michigan. Flint is far from the only community where tests have found alarmingly high numbers of children with alarmingly high levels of lead in their blood. And water isn’t the only source — not even the most common.
Flint has prompted a spate of news reports and op-eds on toxic lead exposure, as you’ve probably noted. It’s also prompted federal-level initiatives to ramp up prevention. I’ll defer these to a separate post and deal here with the basics — many new to me and perhaps to some of you also.
Harms Excessive Lead Levels Do
When lead gets into our bodies, they distribute it to organs like our livers, kidneys and brains. They confuse it with essential nutrients and try to use it, instead of them to build and repair bones, muscles and brain connections.
Damages to young children are especially severe. This is partly because their bodies absorb relatively more lead. And it’s more likely to get into their bodies, especially if they live in homes where the paint on the walls and/or woodwork is still lead-based.
You know how babies are. They crawl around on the floor, which may have paint dust or flecks on it. They put their hands in their mouths. They chew on things — and can reach more things to chew on as they learn to toddle.
Those first few years are when the brain does much of its development work, making connections among cells at an extraordinarily high rate.
This, if I understand correctly, is why lead in the body then can result in a range of irreversible damages, e.g., learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder, difficulties coordinating so-called small motor actions like picking up something with a finger and a thumb.
For somewhat similar reasons, babies may be born with damaged brains if their mothers have lead in their systems — or dead because their mothers miscarry.
Flint Children Just the Tip of the Iceberg
In one respect, the Flint crisis is as particular as the decisions that led to it. In another, it’s one case among many that haven’t gotten the popular media attention they deserve. Nor the rush to remedy — even belatedly, as in Michigan.
New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof cites two communities, a state and a large part of a second where tests have found higher percents of children with dangerously high levels of lead in their blood.
The Detroit News fills in with more communities in Michigan. A reporter, also for the Times, adds Cleveland and several other cities. Vox reports 18 in Pennsylvania where a higher percent of children tested in the danger range than in Flint.
All told, well over half a million young children have blood lead levels higher than the maximum the Centers for Disease Control uses for its risk analyses, according to the Center’s (somewhat dated) estimate.
Where the Lead Comes From
Flint isn’t the only community where corrosion in publicly-owned water pipes has released lead into tap water. Some fellow District of Columbia residents will recall our own lead-infused water crisis.
The most common sources of lead poisoning in children, however, are lead-based paint in their homes and soil that’s got flakes of lead-based exterior paint in it and/or deposits of lead that was in the exhaust emitted by cars and trucks before Congress mandated a gradual phase-out of leaded gasoline.
Not an Equal Opportunity Risk
Flint is an extraordinarily poor community, with a poverty rate of 40%, according to the latest Census survey. The rate soars to nearly 71% for children under five, the highest-risk age group. The community is also predominantly black — not unrelated, one assumes, to the poverty rates.
The poverty rate in Cleveland, also predominantly black, is barely lower — and the rate for children under five somewhat over 64%. More than 17% of the young children tested there (most weren’t) had blood lead levels over the CDC high-risk threshold. Recent tests found a 26.5% toxic rate in one poor part of the city.
CDC has found high blood lead levels in relatively more black children nationwide. It (indirectly) attributes this to older housing and poverty.
But it’s not the age of the house that matters. It’s whether the house was repainted since 1978, when a federal rule banned lead in house paint — and whether the new paint still completely masks the old, if it was. Whether it’s always masked the old matters too.
Fair to assume that poor families are more likely to live in poorly-maintained buildings — and in buildings closer to highways, bus terminals and the like, which were sources of lead that’s still in the soil.
What About Race in the Place
Experts interviewed by Cleveland Plain Dealer reporters attribute the persistent risks to racism. On the one hand, red-lining policies concentrated blacks in neighborhoods then neglected, they say.
On the other hand, evidence of lead poisoning in children was shrugged off or blamed on the kids and their parents. Sound familiar? That may be history now. But Cleveland’s failures to investigate and require remedies isn’t — and not only due to funding shortages, it seems.
Congressman Dan Kildee, who represents Flint, says that race was “the single greatest determinant” of what happened there, referring, it seems, to how the governor and his people discounted residents’ complaints.
Huffington Post reporters go further, citing the waste auto factories dumped into the Flint River as one, but not the only example of environmental racism. It’s nevertheless hard to pinpoint racism when poverty seems a factor too.
“It’s not just about black lives mattering,” says a sociologist who studies impoverished communities. “Poor people’s lives don’t matter.” The water crisis, he adds, “just made everybody notice” what had been going on for a long time.
Perhaps the crisis will prove “a teachable moment for America,” as a former CDC director says. A lot of lessons for state and local officials. Some for Congress and at least one federal agency too.
Of which more shortly.