Beyond Flint, Michigan: A Nationwide Crisis of Childhood Lead Poisoning

Before his death, Freddie Gray was found to have 35 micrograms of lead in his blood, which is seven times the amount that can impair brain development. Children who are poisoned by lead — often in older homes with peeling lead paint, as in Freddie Gray’s case — are six times more likelyto end up in the juvenile justice system or display criminal behavior, and seven times more likely to drop out of school.

Since the 2014 Flint Water Crisis, people have been talking about the dangers of lead in water. What happened in Flint was a tragedy — but what many people don’t realize is that most lead exposure occurs not from contaminated water, but from peeling lead paint in older homes. Particularly harmful to children, lead poisoning can happen if a person breaths in, swallows, or absorbs lead particles through the skin — and one milligram of dust is all it takes to poison a child (that’s the equivalent of only 3 granules of sugar!). Unfortunately, lead exposure in children often results in hearing problemsdeclines in learning and memorydyslexia, and ultimately a lower IQ score in adulthood. There is also evidence that lead poisoning can lead to behavioral issues in adults, such as violent and/or aggressive behavior, depression, and anxiety — which, besides the tragedy in itself, costs states and cities money in the long run as they are forced to invest more money in special education, mental health services, and the justice system.

Due to the crisis that affected roughly 9,000 children, Flint is now preparing for increased spending on special education and increased stress on the juvenile justice system. And Flint, though now famous for the crisis, isn’t the city with the highest lead poisoning rates. For example, 11 cities in New Jersey have a higher proportion of children with dangerous blood lead levels than Flint, though generally not from water, but from old, peeling paint. Soilcan also be contaminated from factory emissions of the past.

Lead poisoning is more likely to affect low-income, urban children and those living in older housing facilities. The most likely source of lead poisoning occurs in homes built before 1978, when the federal law banning its use went into effect — but there are still approximately 24 million homes that contain deteriorating lead paint, posing a major problem for cities and residents.

Who will fix the problem?

So if we know lead is incredibly harmful to our children, why hasn’t the threat been eliminated yet? The problem: states often do not have the resources to do “sweeps” — or check on homes before tenants move in, and instead respond to families only after a complaint has been filed, which, in most cases, is too late to save a child from being poisoned. With the 2008 financial crisis came the loss of funding for federal health programs, meaning lead abatement programs had their budgets slashed. In 2012, the CDC’s lead prevention program was cut from $29 million to a measly $1.9 million. The 2016 budget brought that funding back up to $17 million, but that’s still only 60% of the original allotment — and for the 4 years in between that saw shockingly low funding, little was being done to keep children from being poisoned.

Unfortunately, it’s often up to local municipalities to address lead poisoning in their communities. And although getting adequate funding can be difficult, it’s less costly to address lead issues than to let them linger. Lead-free homes are cheaper and easier to maintain, and they are also more likely to attract investment and improve the overall safety of neighborhoods. By addressing lead issues themselves, cities can save dollars in the long run by preventing the need for increased medical care, special education services, and incarceration costs. The benefits of lead prevention far outweigh the expense.

So what can cities and local municipalities do to cleanse their communities from the dangers of lead?

  1. The first step is identifying housing units that are at risk for lead poisoning — namely, homes built before 1978. Below is a map of Chicago, Illinois, showing housing units built before the year 1979. Areas with large concentrations of these older housing units would be a good place to start a lead poisoning prevention program.

2. Once locations have been identified, allocate grants and state money to address lead hazards in the community.

Samantha Akella is an energy & environment engineer at PEER Consultants P.C., a firm with extensive experience in urban water, energy, hazardous materials clean up, and environmental projects. She has studied the results of the Flint Water Crisis and subsequent environmental testing initiatives.

“Cities can allocate funds to look ‘upstream’ at community health,” she said. “For example, cities can work with hospitals to adopt a ‘geomedicine’ approach, which maps clinical data in congruence with public housing data, such as environmental assessment reports or housing code violations. When housing data is overlayed with asthma or lead poisoning data, cities can better pinpoint neighborhoods where problematic buildings are likely to exist, and thus deploy preventative measures to test homes that could be at risk BEFORE children are poisoned. Prevention is so important.”

3. Encourage people in at-risk neighborhoods to have their children tested and their homes inspected. City-funded pop-up clinics are a great way for cities to make it easy for families to get their children tested.

4. Encourage good nutrition and offer programs that promote healthy food choices. Healthy food can help mitigate the impacts of lead. Lead is stored in the bones and can slowly leach into the bloodstream over time, even years after the external exposure has subsided. Fatty foods increase the absorption of lead, while foods low in fat and high in vitamin C and iron decrease the metal’s absorption in the body. Calcium can also help combat the effects of lead by making it harder for lead to leave the bones. For families that have already been poisoned, good nutrition is essential for combating lead exposure.

For more inspiration on how to combat lead exposure in your city, check out how New York City is addressing lead poisoning here.


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Lauren French has worked in the tech world as a marketing and content professional for the past two years. She earned a master’s degree in public relations from Michigan State University and holds an English degree from Indiana Wesleyan University. When she’s not thinking about marketing and content creation, Lauren enjoys binge-watching Netflix shows and drinking as much coffee as possible. She is also over-the-top obsessed with her two dogs, Hutch and Marty.