Thousands Of U.S. Communities Have Far Worse Lead Poisoning Rates Than Flint
Many of these communities are receiving little attention and funding
An in-depth Reuters investigation found that almost 3,000 localities around the U.S. have higher lead poisoning rates than Flint, Michigan.
After analyzing data from 21 states at the neighborhood level, Reuters found nearly 3,000 areas with lead poisoning rates at least double those in Flint during the peak of that city’s contamination crisis. 1,100 of these communities had a rate of elevated lead levels at least four times higher.
Although children’s average lead levels have declined overall by 90% since the 1970s, this reduction has been uneven as many communities still have architecture with old crumbling lead paint, drinking water from corrosive lead pipes, or are mired in old industrial waste.
“The national mean doesn’t mean anything for a kid who lives in a place where the risks are much higher,” said Dr. Helen Egger, chair of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at NYU Langone Medical Center’s Child Study Center.
The Center for Disease Control has set the threshold for an elevated lead level at 5 micrograms per deciliter. Reuters found that in some cases, like in Cleveland's east side St. Clair-Superior area, nearly 50% of children tested in the last decade had elevated lead levels higher than the CDC’s threshold. That is 10 times the rate of Flint, Michigan.
Pennsylvania state contains the most areas of contamination — 1,100 in all — where at least 10 percent of child lead tests were elevated over the last decade. In 49 different areas, from inner city Philadelphia to capital Harrisburg, at least 40% of children tested had high lead levels.
In Missouri, Viburnum in Iron County is situated in a mining district known as the Lead Belt. Viburnum’s had the sharpest rate of elevated childhood tests in the state, or 30% since 2010.
“Really? I didn’t know about it,” Viburnum Mayor Johnny Setzer told Reuters.
Not only are some of the leaders in these communities unaware of the enormous lead contamination their own people are facing, many of these areas are strapped for cash so their lead testing has drastically declined over the last few years.
Lead poisoning in children can cause cognitive impairment, ADHD, aggressive behavior, memory loss, kidney dysfunction…the list goes on. The effects of long-term lead poisoning can be irreversible and in some cases fatal.
Like Reuters notes, many children with lead poisoning fall into a vicious cycle: Cognitive deficits lead to low school performance, fewer job opportunities, and far too many brushed with the law.
Baltimore also has high levels of lead contamination. One man who was on the receiving end of this poisoning suffered a tragic fate. His name was Freddie Gray. Gray suffered a fatal spinal cord injury in a police van, setting off months of tension in the city and fueling the nationwide debate over policing in black communities. Reuters reports:
In the 1990s, starting at age 2, Gray lived in a row house in Baltimore’s Sandtown-Winchester area tainted with old lead paint, according to a 2008 lawsuit filed by Gray and his siblings against the property’s landlord. He was exposed and suffered developmental problems, the legal filings say. The case was settled for an undisclosed amount.
The CDC estimates that at least 4 million children in U.S. households are exposed to high levels of lead.
“I hope this data spurs questions from the public to community leaders who can make changes,” epidemiologist Robert Walker, co-chair of the CDC’s Lead Content Work Group, which analyzes lead poisoning nationwide told Reuters. “I would think that it would turn some heads.”
It has certainly turned my head. One can only hope this investigation gets the wall-to-wall coverage it deserves. This poses a unique threat to our nation’s health.
Lead poisoning of the aristocracy debatably contributed to the fall of the Roman Empire.
Reuters only analyzed 21 states in their investigation, so one can only assume the numbers would be far higher if every state were to be analyzed. It is now clear that lead poisoning in our nation’s communities is not a one off event. It is a nationwide health crisis. The Senate recently passed a water bill that provided $170 million in aid to the city of Flint, Michigan. We must pressure Congress to provide similar aid to the thousands of communities around the United States who desperately need it. We must invest in our children’s futures.