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Tina Casey headshot

Hillary Clinton Gets Real About Lead Poisoning


In the heat of a Democratic presidential debate on March 6, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a rather ambitious pledge to remove lead "from everywhere." Just a few weeks later, Clinton outlined a more detailed plan that falls far short of total elimination. However, the new plan has a much better chance of achieving what should be the ultimate goal: protecting people from the toxic effects of lead exposure.

The first Clinton lead-risk reduction plan

Tech Insider's Julia Calderone gave a good rundown of the original Clinton lead-hazard plan, as she expressed it during the March 6 Democratic presidential debate in Flint, Michigan:
"I want us to have an absolute commitment to getting rid of lead wherever it is, because it's not only in water systems. It's also in soil, and it's in lead paint that is found mostly in older homes," Clinton said.

"We will commit to a priority to change the water systems, and we will commit within five years to remove lead from everywhere."

As Calderone notes, such a plan is prohibitively expensive, costing in the range of trillions of dollars nationally.

That's partly because, before the health hazards of lead were scientifically catalogued, the so-called "father of all metals" was commonly used in household plumbing and water systems all across the country, such as the one in Flint, Michigan.

Additionally, despite a growing body of evidence indicating serious health impacts, lead was also the common denominator in many ubiquitous products including ammunition, ceramics, batteries, cosmetics, house paint and gasoline throughout most of the 20th century.

That's all on top of lead contamination from industrial sources, including lead smelters, mining and refining operations

Leaded gasoline was a particularly invasive product, as it resulted in both soil and air-related exposure. Federal officials pushed for a limit on lead in gasoline beginning early in the 20th century, but industry lobbyists prevailed until the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was created in 1971 and finally gained enough support to begin taking action in 1975.

In other words, lead is everywhere.

The second Clinton lead-reduction plan

As the above history suggests, the EPA has dealt with lead-hazard issues for many years, and the agency developed property owner guidelines for lead-exposure risk reduction that are simple but effective -- assuming that the general public has the resources and information access required to put the guidelines to use.

The basic premise is that a good proportion of lead exposure today comes as the result of materials used in buildings built before 1979, meaning that the property owner is responsible for addressing the problem. Soil contamination on private property is another major issue. Toys, employment and hobbies can also be portals for lead exposure.

Therefore, EPA's guidelines focus on enabling individuals to asses their risk level and take steps to avoid exposure. That includes guidance on finding qualified contractors to do any lead-related work on the property.

The new Clinton lead-hazard plan is not quite as ambitious as the original iteration, but it goes far beyond this basic guidance.

Kevin Drum of Mother Jones covered the new plan, described by Clinton within a broader eight-point speech on environmental justice at the National Action Network Convention in New York City on April 13.

As Drum reports, the new plan sets a five-year timeline for eliminating lead as a "major public health threat." Note that the plan no longer calls for the simplistic but unattainable goal of eliminating lead outright:

Drum wrote: "For every dollar invested in preventing childhood exposure to lead, between $17 and $200 is saved in reduced educational, health, and criminal justice expenses and improved health and economic outcomes — but the few federal programs that exist are inadequate to address the scope of the problem and have seen significant budget cuts and volatility in recent years."

To ensure that lead risk becomes a national priority, Clinton proposed establishing a new Presidential Commission on Childhood Lead Exposure to accomplish this:
"... writing a national plan to eliminate the risk of lead exposure from paint, pipes, and soil within five years; align state, local and philanthropic resources with federal initiatives; implement best prevention practices based on current science; and leverage new financial resources such as lead safe tax credits."

As a national priority initiative under a Clinton presidency, the recommendations of the Commission would be adopted throughout federal agencies. To put some muscle on the bone, Clinton also foresees putting up to $5 billion in federal dollars toward addressing lead in households and lead-contaminated soil in yards, schools and child care facilities.

Beyond the Clinton lead plan

As Drum observed, the plan is a comprehensive one, but it does not address the fullest extent of the problem, and the five-year timeline is almost certainly too short even within its limited scope.

However, it's a good start for a realistic, long-term approach that gets solid results.

In addition, it puts the force of presidential leadership to work on nudging private industry in the direction of a broader goal to find non-toxic substitutes for lead in art supplies, medical equipment and other common products.

Image (screenshot): via U.S. Centers for Disease Control

Tina Casey headshotTina Casey

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

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