The story of the poisoning of Flint's water supply and the harm knowingly inflicted on the city's children is so shameful that it's hard to believe it is happening.
Unfortunately, Flint is just one example of our collective failure to protect children from being exposed to harmful levels of lead. The true extent of lead exposures spans the nation and, as in Flint, the children most at risk to lead exposure are poor and minority.
While lead in older pipes is a significant risk in drinking water, especially in homes built before 1986, the most significant lead exposure risk is lead paint in and around homes, where it has posed health problems at least since the early 1900's. Lead in paint also can be released in often non-visible dust simply by children playing on or tracking over floors or ledges that contain lead paint.
Similarly, lead paint that has chipped off or blown off the outside of houses is in the ground where children play and can be tracked inside where children play on floors. Compounding the problem, low-income neighborhoods are the most likely to be located near highways and industrial activities where lead from fuel or aerial deposition remains in the ground and easily accessible to children playing outside.
A 2011 HUD study concluded that children under 6 years were exposed to lead hazards in 3.4 million homes in the U.S. and 2012 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that approximately 535,000 U.S. children have high blood lead levels.
The highest blood lead levels in the U.S. are in African American children living below the poverty line and are far higher than for any other children, including other children living in poverty. In Chicago, for example, an exhaustive study by the Chicago Tribune found that 25 percent of children in the low-income, primarily African-American Englewood and Austin neighborhoods have blood lead levels that are above the 5 micrograms per deciliter health standard set by the CDC in 2012. The story is much the same for children in the largely African-American Sandtown neighborhood of Baltimore.
The CDC standard, which requires action to protect children with higher lead levels, was set based on the conclusion of health scientists that there is no safe level of lead exposure for children and that even at very low blood lead levels life-long harms to children can occur. These harms include impaired brain development and cognitive functions, lower IQs, attention-related behavior problems, lower levels of academic achievement, and violent tendencies.
But, as the Chicago data make clear, large numbers of children are continuing to be exposed to harmful lead and suffering its devastating effects.
What can we do?
The top priority should be spending the necessary money to eliminate lead in the paint of older houses and buildings and play areas in residential areas.
We're not starting at ground zero. Two of the principal sources of exposure to lead were banned long ago: The federal government required that lead be removed from paint in 1978 and a phase out of lead in gasoline beginning in the 1970's, with a total ban effective in 1996. As a result, the incidence of unsafe blood lead levels in children and adults fell dramatically in most parts of the country. Indeed, blood lead levels in young children (1 - 5 years) dropped overall in the U.S. by 92 percent from 1976 to 2010, largely as a result of these two steps.
But many older houses, especially in inner cities, still have lead paint. It is not inexpensive to remove it. The average cost of removing lead paint from a home is about $1,600, if people even know they have lead paint in the first place or can afford to remove it. Government inspections of homes and government enforcement of remediation orders in rental housing are essential to solving the problem. And funding is needed to pay for lead paint removal.
Unfortunately, funding cuts by Congress in recent years have meant that many local health departments cannot assist children with lead in their blood. Then states and cities have had to cut funding, in large part because of the loss of federal grants. Chicago, Cleveland, and Baltimore are among the cities lacking sufficient funds to implement lead remediation programs. Shockingly, even after the tragedy in Flint, in January New Jersey Governor Christie vetoed $10 million in funds to remove lead paint from older housing in that state.
These budget cuts around lead prevention are shortsighted because we know that these programs -- especially inspection, remediation, enforcement and education programs -- work. In the long run, the costs of cutting lead exposure and paying for the harms to children over their lifetimes will far outweigh the costs of prevention.
We need to restore - and significantly increase - this funding.
We can also be more creative in how we address this problem. For example, in Illinois, Elevate Energy developed a program that brought both energy efficiency and lead remediation to low income neighborhoods by replacing windows with lead paint frames in older homes. But funding for this program has also been cut.
Ultimately, the failure to protect our most vulnerable children from a well-known source of lead poisoning is unacceptable. As the disaster in Flint should have taught us, sometimes it's crucial that the money be spent.