By Racquel Segall, Health Initiatives Manager for the BlueGreen Alliance.
Why is lead still a problem in our schools, neighborhoods, and cities? Lead poisoning is entirely preventable, yet 535,000 children under the age of six are poisoned by lead in the United States each year. Lead was banned from gasoline starting in 1975, and laws that removed lead from interior house paint and from pipes and solder were enacted in 1978 and 1986 respectively. So, why are we still fighting this battle?
The water crisis in Flint, Michigan, is a tragic example of why lead contamination is still a problem, and how it can affect thousands of people without them knowing. When Flint’s water was switched from Lake Huron to the Flint River, residents started to complain about the water’s smell, taste, and appearance. But it wasn’t until 18 months after the state switched the water supply that physicians found extremely elevated lead levels in children. Today, three years after Flint’s water was switched, the residents still cannot drink or bathe in their city water if it is not filtered.
This crisis is even more devastating when you realize the residents had no control over the situation or the health effects that result from the exposure. Lead is a toxic metal that harms the brain and nervous system and is especially harmful during pregnancy and infancy, when it can decrease IQs, diminish academic abilities, and increase attention deficits and problem behaviors. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, blood lead levels should not exceed ten micrograms/deciliter, and some agencies recommend a limit of five micrograms/deciliter, but in reality, there is no safe level of lead. Even the lowest blood lead levels can affect the developing brain and central nervous system, and the effects can never be reversed.
To put an end to this public health crisis in Flint and other cities across the United States, the 2016 National Lead Summit’s call to action was to end lead poisoning in five years. This theme rang throughout the day-and-a-half summit, as it brought together environmental and public health leaders, policymakers, strategists, and advocates to engage in reinforcing the call to action and to build the public and political will to approach this crisis.
Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) powerfully explained at the summit that, “it’s not just Flint, it is other communities in Michigan, and it is other communities across the country.”
Through various speakers and conversations, the summit emphasized that lead poisoning can affect everyone, no matter your income, gender, race, or age, and that we must do everything in our power to prevent another crisis like Flint. As panels and discussions continued, more themes arose, including that we can find and eliminate lead in our homes, schools, and cities, but funding is desperately needed.
Karen Weaver, the Mayor of Flint, addressed the enormous cost of infrastructure, but also highlighted that if we do not fix our infrastructure, the human cost will be even larger. While discussing how Flint’s infrastructure crisis is now “underground and in our homes,” she also addressed the importance of speaking up and what happens when we don’t. Lead removal may be an enormous cost, but it is a one-time cost, whereas lead poisoning and our health are lifetime costs.
Mayor Weaver also shined a light on her new Flint WaterWorks program, which will provide jobs and opportunities for 100 young people ages 16-24 who are out of school and not working. Their tasks will include delivering clean water, providing healthy foods and nutrition information to the community, and making Flint’s water infrastructure safe by helping with the Mayor’s Fast Start initiative to remove all lead and lead-tainted service lines in the city. She hopes this will be the start of a great project that will create an apprenticeship program, provide the youth with skill sets, and hopefully expand the program to employ more young people.
Eliminating lead cannot only keep communities safe and healthy, but it can also create family-sustaining jobs, and boost local economies across the country. In homes and schools, the main areas of investment are in replacement of lead pipes, single-pane windows, and deteriorated lead paint. Eliminating exposure from those three sources will drastically decrease the number of exposed children and can create numerous jobs.
It is important to implement strategies to end lead poisoning in five years to ensure that every American has access to a safe and healthy living space. Promoting safer alternative water pipelines, chemical-free paints and creating jobs to combat this national crisis are all wins, and concrete steps towards reaching this goal. Making this a priority now will bring the current number of 535,000 children poisoned each year down to zero children poisoned each year, something we can and must achieve. We cannot wait for another Flint; we must take action now to eliminate lead poisoning.