You’ve probably heard about Flint, Michigan by now. The city decided to obtain their water from the Flint River because it was cheaper than purchasing water from Detroit. The acidic river water caused old pipes to corrode, and the water delivered to citizens’ homes contained alarmingly high levels of lead.
The situation was compounded by government officials, dismissing complaints about discolored water as primarily aesthetic, as if — other concerns aside — it is acceptable to provide people with water that resembles urine.
Meanwhile, the number of children with elevated levels of lead in their bloodstream doubled.
Exposure to lead can be devastating, especially to children. Children absorb the metal at a faster rate than adults, and small amounts can result in permanent learning and behavioral disorders. Studies have even attributed the decline in crime since the early ‘90s to the phasing out of leaded gasoline two decades prior.
While Flint is deservedly receiving media attention, more insidious forms of lead exposure plague communities across the country.
We no longer breathe in lead emanated by automobiles, but what we didn’t inhale fell to the earth and remains in the soil. According to an article by Vox, much of the country lacks extensive data on soil contamination (states are not even required to report data on lead poisoning to the CDC), but the data that do exist suggest that the highest concentrations are in urban centers.
This disproportionately affects poor communities, and there is a racial component as well — a black child is twice as likely as their white counterpart to have elevated levels of lead in their bloodstream.
It’s worth thinking about how exposure to lead can trap generations in poverty.
Many Americans see the country as a meritocracy — those who perform well advance in society. Proponents of this view blame young adults who fail to perform in school and fall into a life of crime for their own lack of success.
But if children grow up in an environment that exposes them to lead, it becomes more difficult for them to succeed and move beyond their parent’s social class.
Tellingly, underperforming schools and violent neighborhoods exist in impoverished urban centers where lead permeates the soil, compounding other challenges faced by these children.
Freddie Gray, whose criminal record was used as a justification for his brutal death at the hands of Baltimore police, received a settlement because as a child he had been poisoned by lead paint.
How many victims of the school-to-prison pipeline are incarcerated because they were exposed to lead in their yards, local parks or the paint on the walls of aging houses?
The costs of neglect tend to fall on the very communities that are least equipped to bear them.
It’s hard to imagine officials in a wealthier city than Flint shrugging off concerns about discolored drinking water with organic matter floating in it. Nor is it likely that a higher incidence of lead poisoning among white children than black children would fail to command the country’s attention.
The situation has greatly improved since we stopped adding lead to gasoline, but the effects of leaded gasoline are still present and damaging children’s lives, especially those who grow up in our cities.
Flint should serve as a wake-up call. We need to collect better data measuring soil contamination, especially in urban areas. The CDC should require reporting rates of lead poisoning. We should conduct target lead abatement programs in areas where children are most at risk.
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