Lead has had an insidious role in shaping U.S. health and environmental policies, often to the jeopardy of the country’s youngest residents, who are most at risk from lead poisoning. In the 1970s, the discovery that people were inhaling lead from car exhaust brought about the introduction of lead-free gasoline. Almost 20 years later the federal government outlawed lead paints, after a plethora of evidence linked them to health complications in toddlers, including physical and mental disabilities.
This week, the unwelcome chemical element threatens to bring down a state government. The city of Flint, Michigan, population 100,000, has been dealing with water problems since April, 2014, when the state decided to switch its water source to the Flint River to save money. Within days of the switch, residents began to complain of a foul odor emanating from their tap water. Within months, pediatricians reported elevated levels of lead in their young patients. The percentage of children diagnosed with lead poisoning in some sections of the city quickly jumped from 2.5 percent to triple that number. By December 2015, the anticipated number of cases in some zip codes reached 15 percent, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician in Flint, told the Guardian.
Earlier this month, the newly-elected mayor of Flint, Karen Weaver, declared a state of emergency in an attempt to deal with the crisis. Records now suggest that the Michigan Health Department knew there could be a health risk from the new water source. Some researchers suggest the responsibility for the crisis goes deeper than that.
“[The Michigan Heath Department] discovered scientifically conclusive evidence of an anomalous increase in childhood lead poisoning in summer 2014 immediately after the switch in water sources,” asserts Siddartha Roy, “but stood by silently as Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) officials repeatedly and falsely stated that no spike in blood lead levels (BLL) of children had occurred.”
And unfortunately, Flint isn’t the only city that is facing a problem with lead poisoning. Chicago, where the walls in many older apartment buildings and homes are still covered in lead paint, has four times the number of reported lead poisonings than the national average. Although federal law makes it illegal for a landlord or a seller to rent or sell property that could pose a risk of lead poisoning, the problem still persists, with some lower-income areas showing a higher incidence.
And as in Flint, this issue has become political. The Chicago Tribune’s May 2015 coverage on the issue suggests that less money is being committed to the cleanup of old buildings than before. Some city departments are closed, while others are receiving less staffing.
“Our elected officials are leaving certain neighborhoods to fend for themselves,” Carolyn Vessel, the director of a Chicago-based mental health center. “If they care about the violence, if they care about the schools, they should care about lead.”
There is data to back up Vessel’s concern. A paper published in Environmental Health in April 2015 links lead poisoning with lower scholastic performance. The study, which focused on Chicago children, was unique because it looked at a large sample of kids and the classic health problems that are faced by children exposed to lead at very young ages. It found that [early] childhood lead exposure is associated with poorer achievement on standardized reading and math tests in the third grade, even at very low B-Pbs. Preventing lead exposure in early childhood is critical to improving school performance.
In other words, Chicago and Flint schools can look forward to a harder time at school and lower test scores for many of its children in future years. But what makes these two stories even more concerning for parents, pediatricians and the cities littlest residents is that according to Dr. Hanna-Attisha, elevated lead levels can only be detected in the bloodstream during the first 30 days of exposure. So those children who may have been exposed months earlier and didn’t get a blood test during that period may very well have gone undiagnosed. And that’s a problem, notes Mother Jones writer Kevin Drum, we have already seen and should know better than to repeat.