Getting the lead out — in Flint, in St. Paul and across the country

Freeway west from Pelham bridge.jpg

Twenty-some years ago, my kids tested with high lead levels. Ron and I were shocked and horrified. Before our oldest was born, we had tested the paint in the house – no lead. Tested the water – no lead. Tested for radon – no radon. Tested for every single thing we could think of, and everything came back safe. And now our children had high lead levels.

Our family doctor had a simple answer: our address. We live next to a freeway. For decades, cars with leaded gasoline spewed out exhaust fumes, and lead settled in the soil. Every home along the freeway had lead-contaminated soil. Kids play outside in the dirt, people bring dust into the house on their shoes, wind blows dust through the windows, toddlers and pre-toddlers crawl around on the floor, and put their hands in their mouths.

The solution, though time-consuming and annoying, was also simple. For the next years, until both children were up off the floor and walking, everyone who entered the house had to take their shoes off. And every night, I washed every floor in the house.

That worked. Their lead levels came down. Thank God. (And thanks to alert docs who tested the kids, and then advised and supported us.)

Our problem was nothing close to the lead-contaminated water that families in Flint, Michigan have been exposed to since 2014. But while Flint’s families now serve as the unwilling poster children for lead poisoning, Flint is not the only place where children are poisoned by lead.

Yes, I said poison. Lead does so much harm that the country has mandated its removal from gasoline and paint. As Vox explains:

“Lead poisoning affects brain development so much that the gradual reduction of lead poisoning in American society has worked something of a miracle. Exposure to lead — and no amount of exposure is now considered safe — can lead to learning disabilities, lower IQs, and impulsivity. Those effects, multiplied over a city or state or country, are costly.”

Now that Flint has brought the lead poisoning problem to the headlines, a few journalists are reminding us that lead is a problem throughout the country. Nicholas Kristof estimates the number of lead-poisoned children across the country at more than half a million, and says the problem “is tolerated partly because the victims often are low-income children of color.”

Another Vox article explains:

“The main thing we know about non-catastrophic lead in the United States is that the biggest problem is inner-city soil contaminated by decades-old gasoline. Gas went unleaded in the mid-1970s, but all the old lead burned in the past was dumped into the air and then fell back to earth. The tiny lead particles don’t biodegrade. They mix in with the soil, get tracked into houses, and, most of all, end up on the hands and toys of little kids, who have a marked tendency to stick anything and everything into their mouths, leading to the ingestion of lead.

“This lead is everywhere, but it’s most heavily concentrated in places that were close to a lot of vehicle traffic during the leaded gasoline days — in other words, the centers of big cities.”

Kristof explains that:

“… lead poisoning is not one city’s catastrophe but a nation’s — and the world’s, since the situation is even worse in some low-income countries. …

“Yet anti-lead programs have been dismantled in recent years because in 2012 Congress slashed the funding for lead programs at the C.D.C. by 93 percent. After an outcry, some money was restored, but even now these lead programs have only a bit more than half the funding they once had.”

We got the lead out of gasoline in the 1970s and 1980s, though the after-effects of years of leaded gasoline still contaminate inner city yards, boulevards and gardens. We got the lead out of paint more gradually, though the problem persists in older homes and buildings.

Now we need to go the rest of the way. We need to improve and expand lead screening for children. We need to restore funding for testing and also for remediation programs. “When a child tests positive,” Kristof writes, “a public health team should be dispatched to find the source and eliminate it.”

Even our deadlocked Congress should be able to agree on this.

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