Lead: A Nation-wide Epidemic

Environmental Torts
Lead Poisoning

By Sean Lally, Staff Writer

Toward the end of 2017, in NYC, Natalia Rollins and her two sons, Randy and Noah, found themselves in an unexpected health emergency. Ms. Rollins discovered that Noah, only two years old, had suffered lead poisoning, which was caused by paint in her newly acquired apartment. New York City, one of the many US cities knee deep in lead poisoning, has received much criticism and faced a number of lawsuits over its failure to enforce yearly inspections of New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) apartments. Rollins, who was living in a private apartment, sued the city for millions of dollars, hoping to recover just compensation.

One of Many

Sadly, this story is one of thousands from around the country. According to the CDC, nearly half a million children (ages 1-5) have blood levels that exceed the currently accepted threshold. As noted by historians, David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz, 500,000 children suffering from a serious health problem would, in other contexts, be cause for national alarm. If it were polio or meningitis, Rosner and Markowitz have suggested, the country’s leaders would not remain quiet. But since the issue affects mostly poor, African American children, the problem has been swept under the rug since the 1930s.

Brief History

Since the early 20th century, lead has been a building block of the nation’s cities, being used in a variety of products, ranging from washing machines to children’s dolls and from bean bags to baseballs. Perhaps the most widespread and dangerous use of lead was in paint, piping and gas, three products that provide the framework for modern city living.

Manufacturers actively sold their lead-based products despite the fact that they knew about the risks associated with lead exposure. They even marketed lead paint specifically to children, promoting the activity of painting as a kind of game. It wasn’t until the 1950s that regulators came down on the lead industry. By that time, millions of children had been affected.

Industry Strikes Back

The struggle, however, did not cease in the 1950s. Industry leaders have fought tooth and nail against scientists’ claims that even small doses of lead can cause neurological disorders. Perhaps most famously, in the 1980s, the industry went after Dr. Herbert Needleman, whose research uncovered the immensely damaging effects of leaded gas. That same research led to the banning of leaded fuel. The industry even went so far as to allege that Needleman was guilty of scientific misconduct, an accusation that could have resulted in his being ostracized from the scientific community.

Thousands of Cities and Towns

Because the country has not adequately addressed the lead problem, there are nearly 3,000 localities that have lead-poisoning rates that are twice as high as Flint’s. In parts of Philadelphia, where Needleman spent some time doing research, rates of elevated tests have soared to 40-50 percent of children.

Representatives Do Very Little

Thousands of children in Philadelphia, however, get short shrift from their representatives in city council, despite the fact that lead poisoning can cause severe behavioral disorders, lowered IQs and learning disabilities. In Philadelphia, nearly 92 percent of all homes were built prior to the 1978 lead-based paint ban. For this reason, abatement, or the process of removing lead from homes, is urgently needed. In 2012, the city released an order, requiring certain landlords to rid their homes of lead. That order has gone largely unheeded.

All of this is compounded by the fact that even low levels of lead can have irreversible consequences: “Even at very low levels, children can have trouble learning and have other problems with their brain function," Dr. Kevin Osterhoudt, of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, told Philly.com. "[It] robs them of their potential to achieve all they may have otherwise."

Small Government

What stands in the way of meaningful action? Well, the political climate has favored deregulation and the shrinking of government. As more and more sectors become privatized, public health issues become less important. In Philadelphia, over the last few years, the city has seen $3 million of federal funding disappear. That’s in addition to the 40 out of 65 positions slashed from the Lead and Healthy Homes Program.

And this is more or less the situation around the country, according to Rosner and Markowicz. The government doesn’t seem to want to spend money on preventative measures. As Rosner put it, “It’s only expensive if you think it’s not worth doing, which is a value judgement about communities and people. And that’s where things turn tragic.” 

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