Lead poisoning occurs when lead builds up in the body. Children under the age of 6 are especially vulnerable. Even small amounts of lead can cause serious health problems which can severely affect mental and physical development. At higher levels, lead poisoning can be fatal. Despite public opinion, the most common source of lead poisoning is not contaminated water but dust from lead-based paint. There have been movements to alleviate lead poisoning over the last forty years since the days of lead based gasoline, but recently the Flint water crisis has shed a new light on the situation.
According to the World Health Organization, childhood lead exposure is estimated to contribute to about 600,000 new cases of children developing intellectual disabilities every year. When lead in the body it is distributed to the brain, liver and kidney and stored in the teeth and bones. Lead exposure is assessed through the measurement of lead in blood. No level of lead exposure, no matter how small, is currently considered “safe”.
Although the crisis in Flint is absolutely horrible, the problem is not only in Flint. A study by USA Today found that there are an estimated 7.3 million lead surface lines in the US that we don’t exactly know where they are. Here is a map that details the risk in every neighborhood in America for lead poisoning in the water. Twenty-one states do not regularly submit data to the CDC on lead surveillance programs. Eleven of those 21 states do not submit any kind of lead surveillance data to the CDC. Clearing out the additional 2,000 lead pipe water systems in the US will help, but lead paint dust is in an estimated 2.1 million homes.
Here is an infographic from the CDC detailing lead poisoning in children:
Other Aspects Affecting the Country.
The harmful side effects caused by lead places not only undue emotional and physical burdens but also economic burdens on families and society. According to the WHO, when exposure to lead is at a low level of toxicity and widespread, it can “damage health, reduce intelligence, damage economies, and incapacitate the future leadership and security of entire countries.” In the United States, an economic analysis found that lead poisoning in children currently costs the US$ 43 billion per year. John Oliver’s recent segment showcased the same WHO study which performed a cost–benefit analysis that found for every 1 US$ spent to reduce lead hazards there is a benefit to society of 17–220 US$ through reduced crime rates, health expenses and other factors.
A recent article by Kevin Drum, of Mother Jones, looks deeper into the growing research linking lead exposure in small children with complications later in life including lower IQ, hyperactivity, behavioral problems and learning disabilities. Rick Nevin published a study “How Lead Exposure Relates to Temporal Changes in IQ, Violent Crime and Unwed Pregnancy” in 2000. He concluded with a lag time of 23 years, lead emissions from automobiles explain 90% of the variation in violent crime in America. Toddlers who ingested high levels of lead in the ’40s and ’50s were more likely to become violent criminals in the ’60s, ’70s and ‘80s.
Here is a timeline of lead reduction along with lead/crime correlation
Howard Mielke and Sammy Zahran from Tulane University published a paper where they studied six US cities going back to the ’50s. Mielke studied lead concentrations at the neighborhood level in New Orleans and realized when the concentrations are overlaid with crime maps, they matched up.
A study of scans found that lead exposure degrades both the formation and structure of myelin which inhibits neurons from communicating effectively, making the brain slower and less coordinated. A second study found high exposure to lead during childhood is linked to a permanent loss of gray matter in the prefrontal cortex. This is the part of the brain associated with aggression control as well as “executive functions”: emotional regulation, impulse control, attention, verbal reasoning and mental flexibility. Other issues having to do with developing ADHD and a lower IQ can also be attributed to lead in the body.
With the potential issues for the development of our citizens and costs to society, it’s encouraging that new bills have been proposed to mitigate the risk of lead exposure.
In the current session New Jersey proposed three different bills. First, A 2281 titled the “Smart Container Act”. This act would require consumers to have a $0.10 deposit on “beverage” containers that are 24 oz or less and $0.20 for containers that are up to a gallon or 3.8 liters. Its plan is to encourage recycling while funding an important program to remove lead paint from homes and other buildings. Unclaimed money from the deposits go to the Healthy School and Lead Abatement Fund. Second, A 3539 would require all schools to test for lead and other toxic substances in drinking water twice a year. It also calls for water remediation if contaminates are found. And finally, A 3583 would appropriate $20 million from societal benefits charge to DEP for drinking water infrastructure improvements and lead abatement in City of Newark. Jeff Tittel, the director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, stated “This money would be a starting point for removing antiquated pipes from our system that allow lead to enter our drinking water. We understand the need to address this issue and think it’s important to improve drinking water infrastructure.”
New York introduced S 02412 which would enact the “Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention and Safe Housing Act” of 2015 to make enforcement of lead hazard control standards in the state of New York more certain and effective. Pennsylvania has proposed two bills: SB 16, an act establishing a task force on lead and the hazards of lead poisoning and HB 1917, an act providing for health insurance coverage for lead screening and related diagnostic services.
Congress has also has proposed three distinct bills to help decrease the amount of lead poisoning throughout the US. First, S 2830 the “Lead Testing in School and Child Care Drinking Water Act of 2016” to provide for a school and child care lead testing grant program. Second, the “True LEADership Act” S 2821 is a bill to improve drinking water quality and reduce lead exposure in homes, and for other purposes. The plan recommits the federal government to a critical role in water infrastructure investment, lead remediation and the strong drinking water protections provided by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Finally there is the “CLEAR Act” (Copper and Lead Evaluation, Assessment and Reporting Act) S 2587. Senator Ben Cardin spoke about this act saying “The loss of safe drinking water supplies in Flint and in communities across the country has given rise to a crisis of public confidence that should never be allowed to exist in America. The CLEAR Act will work to restore the public trust in its drinking water by improving safety testing and ensuring our communities know immediately should their drinking water safety ever be compromised.” It works to accomplish two major initiatives: establish a health-based, household action level that triggers a report to the consumer and to the applicable health agency for follow-up and, to utilize results of tap samples for lead to inform consumer action to reduce the risks in their homes and inform the appropriate health agency when results are above a designated household action level.
It is clear the United States has a renewed energy to obliterate lead poisoning throughout the country. With its extreme side affects in the development of our children, this is a very real, very scary problem. We need to continue with these efforts in order to make something that is 100% avoidable no longer an issue for the first time in over 70 years.