Beyond Flint: Lead Poisoning as National Crisis

BY HOLLY ROBINSON

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Flint residents protest. Source: Youtube

The ongoing lead crisis in Flint, Michigan has prompted abundant media coverage on both health issues and political corruption. This attention also increased awareness about the prominence of lead poisoning, bringing similar stories from across the nation to the foreground. At least three other cities—Newark, New York City, and Cleveland—have since reported lead crises of their own and have begun testing as of March of this year. Each story reveals the failed responsibility of the municipal officials to ensure healthy, safe environments in their communities.

With media coverage now focused on possible repercussions for the politicians deemed responsible for these events, it is important not to lose sight of the health issues that face those who have been, and continue to be, affected by high levels of lead in the water supply and in buildings. Lead in concentrations above 15 parts per billion is considered by the federal government to be dangerous enough to warrant taking action.1 Even small amounts of lead can result in serious health problems, but today’s crises involve levels above the federal thresholds. Children under 6 are particularly vulnerable, as toxic levels of lead exposure can cause delays in both mental and physical development.2 Additionally, lead poisoning can cause weight loss, vomiting, and hearing loss in children. However, lead poisoning is also dangerous for adults and can result in high blood pressure, abdominal pain, declines in mental functioning, or even miscarriage or premature birth in pregnant women.2

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Michigan National Guard Staff Sergeant William Phillips (right) assists a Flint resident with bottled water at a fire station in Flint, Michigan. Source: Rebecca Cook

Lead has been a part of everyday life since the Roman Empire.3 Roman Emperors and contemporary US residents alike have suffered its consequences. Historically, lead has been used in plumbing systems, the printing press, and architecture and design. In the 1920s, lead started to be used as an additive to gasoline to make car engines run better.3 This put at risk those who came in contact with the lead, and emissions from car engines elevated ambient levels of lead in the air, making simply breathing a risk for lead poisoning. The US did not regulate leaded gasoline until the 1970s, despite nearly 5,000 people dying from lead poisoning each year due to exposure to leaded gasoline, perhaps due to a lack of understanding of the consequences of lead exposure.3 Lead has also been used in paint and in pipes, which is the source of the crises across the United States. Lead reduction efforts have been largely successful, but, as recent coverage demonstrates, there is still much to be done to eliminate lead in all environments.

Public housing and schools have come under particular scrutiny in recent months for dangerous levels of lead. This is especially problematic, because this affects the most vulnerable populations within cities. Those living in public housing or homeless shelters may not have regular or reliable access to medical services, and young children in schools are more vulnerable to lead poisoning than other demographics. In Newark, New Jersey, findings of unsafe levels of lead in 37 out of 60 schools prompted voluntary testing at one public school to measure lead exposure.1 The problem in Newark is not new, despite its recent coverage; samples from 2014 showed that the water contained unsafe levels of lead. In response to these results, a district-wide memorandum issued in August 2014 advised that water fountains be run for thirty seconds before drinking, that custodial staff run the water fountains for two minutes before school each day, and that cafeteria workers run the water for two minutes before using water for cooking.1 These recommendations comply with the EPA’s recommendations for how to reduce lead exposure, but with no system in place to ensure that these procedures are being followed, it is unclear if they made any tangible difference in the two years since their implementation.4 Furthermore, they rely on the agency of young children using water fountains to reduce their own lead exposure.

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Lead paint. Source: Wikimedia

Meanwhile, in New York, dangerous levels of lead in public housing and homeless shelters have caused increased blood lead levels among the populations living in them.5 The elevated lead levels in such homes is hardly surprising, given that these public housing buildings date back to the 1930s and 1940s and were originally built with lead paint. With floods of requests for lead paint removal, the Housing Authorities in New York are unable to keep up with the orders and blame a lack of funding for addressing maintenance issues.5 According to the EPA, lead abatement projects must be performed by certified firms, which can be expensive. This issue is further complicated due to accusations of the filing false claims for payment related to poor environmental health conditions.1 The discovery of unsafe levels of lead adds to a slew of environmental health concerns plaguing the New York public housing system. Most notable among these are a severe mold problem, rodents and insects, and water damage.5

Lead poisoning in Cleveland has been described as even worse than Flint. Nearly 15 percent of all children in the city have elevated blood lead levels, compared to seven percent in Flint. The movement to remove lead paint in all homes, which began 40 years ago, has largely failed in Cleveland.6 To many, this seems like an easy fix. The effects of lead are well known, as is the technology needed to combat it. There is a need for funding and political will in order to effect change. Perhaps part of the ongoing problem in Cleveland stems from the CDC’s cutting of lead poisoning prevention grants beginning in 2010. However, with such a massive yet preventable problem on their hands, it is ultimately up to the city government itself to make lead abatement a priority.

The focus on similar lead crises in Newark, New York City, and Cleveland is not intended to discredit or upstage the crisis in Flint, Michigan. However, as superintendent of Newark Public Schools Christopher Cerf said, “I think the way the world would receive these data [on unsafe lead levels] is different after Flint.”7 With all of the attention that lead levels are getting, it is important to consider not only the politicians and agencies that must be held accountable, but also the health of the people who have been living in these conditions unknowingly for years. These are certainly examples of political scandals, but also examples of health issues that could effect populations for years to come. Thus this issue must be tackled both from the top-down, by terminating corrupt municipal leaders and replacing them with suitable agencies, and from the bottom-up, by considering what can be done in the here and now to help those who have been and continue to be affected by unsafe environmental conditions.

Holly is a senior double majoring in Russian Literature and Anthropology. She can be contacted at holly.robinson@yale.edu.

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Bibliography

1. Schweber, N. (2016, March 17). Newark Begins Testing Children’s Lead Levels Amid Rising Anxiety. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/18/nyregion/newark-begins- testing-childrens- lead-levels-amid-rising- anxiety.html.

2. Mayo Clinic Staff. (2014, June 10). Lead Poisoning. Retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/lead- poisoning/basics/definition/con-20035487.

3. Sohn, E. Lead: Versatile Metal, Long Legacy. Dartmouth Toxic Metals Superfund Research Program. Retrieved from http://www.dartmouth.edu/~toxmetal/toxic-metals/more- metals/lead-history.html.

4. EPA. (2013, April). Drinking Water Best Management Practices. Retrieved from http://nepis.epa.gov/Exe/ZyPDF.cgi?Dockey=P100GOT8.txt.

5. Navarro, M., & Rashbaum, W. (2016, March 16). U.S. Investigating Elevated Blood Lead Levels in New York’s Public Housing. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/17/nyregion/us-investigating- elevated-blood- lead-levels- in-new-yorks- public-housing.html?em_pos=large&emc=edit_nn_20160317&nl=morning-briefing&nlid=69730888&_r=0.

6. Wines, M. (2016, March 3). Flint is in the News, but Lead Poisoning is Even Worse in Cleveland. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/04/us/lead-paint-contamination-persists- in-many- cities-as- cleanup-falters.html.

7. McGeehan, P. (2016, March 16). Newark Schools to Test Pupils for Lead as Officials Cite Longstanding Problem. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/17/nyregion/newark-school- officials-to- offer-lead- testing-to-youngest-students.html.

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