Residents of the Fruitvale neighbourhood in Oakland, CA, are being exposed to far more dangerous levels of lead than residents of Flint, Michigan. However, in this case, the drinking water isn’t the reason for the contamination — it’s the lead-based paint still in use in many of the buildings there. When it chips or crumbles, the lead ends up being released into the air and the dirt nearby.
Flint, Michigan, has been in the news a lot, and not for good reason. The nation has been outraged over the ignorance elected officials have shown toward the public health crisis that saw water supplies contaminated with lead and tap water turn rust-brown as a result.
Health effects of lead exposure are severe, which makes the fact that the State Department of Environmental Quality knowingly failed to treat the Flint River with an anti-corrosive agent even more infuriating. Lead exposure in children can cause impaired cognition, behavioural disorders, hearing problems, and delayed puberty. In pregnant women, it can hinder fetal growth, and for everyone, it can affect the heart, kidneys, and nerves.
The crisis, which has been going on for years, continues to impact residents. In November 2016, the state of Michigan and city of Flint were ordered to deliver bottled water to homes whose filters may still be contaminated. By December of 2016, four officials were charged with felonies of false pretenses and conspiracy.
Flint isn’t the only place to be concerned about. Having just finished a comprehensive study of public health data in 21 states, they found that numerous U.S. counties and ZIP codes harbour children with dangerously high lead levels in their bodies. You can view a map of their findings here.
Reporters visited several of the trouble spots: a neighborhood with many rundown homes in South Bend, Indiana; a rural mining town in Missouri’s Lead Belt; the economically depressed North Side of Milwaukee. In each location, it was easy to find people whose lives have been impacted by lead exposure. While poverty remains a potent predictor of lead poisoning, the victims span the American spectrum – poor and rich, rural and urban, black and white.
Dangerous Lead Levels Widespread Problem
“Flint is no aberration,” Reuters explains. “In fact, it doesn’t even rank among the most dangerous lead hotspots in America.” The news agency reveals that in Flint, five percent of children screened citywide were found to have lead levels that significantly exceeded the CDC limit of 5 micrograms per deciliter.
In the Mission District of the Bay Area, screenings showed a rate of 4.4% among 500 kids in 2012. In Bayview and Hunters Point, another screening of 500 revealed a rate of 3.44%. And tests in the ZIP codes of 94112 and 94134 ZIP revealed rates of about two percent.
So far, the most alarming lead levels in the Bay Area exist in Oakland’s 94601 ZIP code, covering Fruitvale and surrounding neighborhoods, where the rate among 500 children tested came in at over 7.5%, which is worse than Flint’s average of 5% (though some of their worst hit neighborhoods saw a rate of 11%). Though “elevated levels don’t necessarily indicate by how much local populations have blown the threshold; the data we have today diagnoses the problem, but not its severity. Still, even with all that considered, the figures we see here warrant attention—and alarm,” Curbed reports.
The most concerning part, however, is that for the rest of the Bay Area, there is simply no recent data to examine at all — a direct result of the CDC’s limited budget for lead screening, which has meant than many neighbourhoods must go entirely unchecked.
Reporters for Reuters discovered dangerous leads levels present in nearly 3,000 different locales within the country, and yet it’s been found that, for children, any degree of exposure is too much.
Childhood poisoning victim Brandon, now 20, lives with his mother DeeDee in an old two-story home. Across the street is the old rental house where, as a baby, Brandon was exposed to peeling lead paint. Health records show that before age 2, his levels reached nearly 10 times the current CDC threshold. He was hospitalized and received chelation treatment. The drugs remove heavy metals from the body and help prevent further damage, but once a child is exposed, the impact can be irreversible.
Brandon, who is easily excited, was at turns cheerful and mournful during an interview. He never finished high school and hasn’t held a job. He has cognitive impairment, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and outbursts of anger. He was recently arrested after a dispute with a convenience store clerk over soda pop, and is now on probation.
“Ever since I caught the lead, I’ve been messed up in the head. I can’t control my anger or feelings,” Brandon said. “I could have been better than I am.”
Like Brandon, many children with lead poisoning fall into a vicious cycle: Cognitive deficits breed poor school performance, high dropout rates, few job opportunities, and brushes with the law.
Last year, one man mired in that cycle met a notorious end. At 25, Baltimore resident Freddie Gray sustained a fatal spinal cord injury in a police van, setting off months of tension in the city and fueling the national debate over policing in black communities.
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.
Gray’s former home sits in an area where children’s lead exposure has persisted at shocking levels, testing data shows.
In several nearby census tracts, elevated lead levels were found in between 25 percent and 40 percent of children tested from 2005 to 2015.
In South Bend, Indiana, where health officials face a cash crunch, lead testing is in sharp decline even as existing data points to a serious problem.
In one tract there, 31 percent of small children tested from 2005 to 2015 had high levels – more than six times Flint’s rate last year. The area, 1.5 miles southwest of the University of Notre Dame’s idyllic college campus, is home to about 250 children. Filled with old dwellings, it has one of the highest poverty rates in town.
Dr. Luis Galup, a pathologist and the county health officer, said funds to tackle the problem in South Bend have dwindled. “We are the lowest of the low in terms of public health funding,” he said.
Mayor Pete Buttigieg said the evidence that poisoning is widespread in parts of South Bend could cause public health administrators to seek more state funds or reallocate resources.
“It’s an eye-opener,” he said of the Reuters study. “As a community with lots of low income residents and lots of old housing, we’re vulnerable … The county health department does everything they can just to keep up with child immunizations and restaurant inspections.”
The county, with around 265,000 residents, has two nurses and one environmental inspector tasked with lead poisoning prevention. Thinly spread, they conduct home inspections only when a child’s lead levels reach double the CDC’s elevated threshold.
Finding those children is getting harder.
Housing and Urban Development grants that paid for South Bend lead testing ended in May. For years, the local Women, Infants and Children program, or WIC, conducted hundreds of childhood blood lead tests annually. That testing, which has stopped, relied on outside funds from HUD and others.
South Bend pediatricians and the local Head Start program still order screenings, but many children go untested.
“I bet there are hardly any tests being done now,” said WIC program director Sue Taylor. “The funding dried up.”
Lack of Attention to Issue Can't go Ignored
Since the heavy metal was phased out from paint and gasoline in the late 1970s, children’s average blood lead levels have dropped by more than 90 percent. That success story masks a sober reality in neighborhoods where risk abatement has failed.
“The national mean doesn’t mean anything for a kid who lives in a place where the risks are much higher,” said Dr. Egger.
“I hope this data spurs questions from the public to community leaders who can make changes,” said epidemiologist Robert Walker, co-chair of the CDC’s Lead Content Work Group, which analyzes lead poisoning nationwide. “I would think that it would turn some heads.”
The findings, Walker said, will help inform the public about risks in their own neighborhoods and allow health officials to seek lead abatement grants in the most dangerous spots.
There isn’t much federal help available. Congress recently directed $170 million in aid to Flint. That’s 10 times the CDC’s budget for assisting states with lead poisoning this year.
And yet it seems people aren’t exactly keen to hear about the issue. Reuters explains that there is a stigma attached to lead poisoning due to its psychological effects and because it’s typically more apparent in poor neighborhoods. Aside from industrial pollutants, lead exposure is more prevalent in older homes, with their aging pipes and paint.
If you’re concerned about your community, read the full report and take a look at Reuters‘ map of identified lead hotspots.