Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

A National Disgrace

Our good friend Speechless has shared with us in a comment that she has a son who was lead poisoned. This is an issue with which I have long been involved, so I feel obliged to make this possibly boring, but compelling post.

For centuries, lead has been used in paint for white color. It has also been used in plumbing, and various other applications where the public may come in contact with it. In the 1920s, automobile companies discovered that by adding a compound called tetraethyl lead to gasoline, they could build engines with higher compression ratios and more power. Soon lead was spewing out of tailpipes, and entering the dust and soil near roads. Workers involved in the manufacture of leaded gas started getting sick, so the Surgeon General briefly suspended the sale of leaded gas in 1924. President Coolidge appointed a commission dominated by the industry, which reported back in 7 months that there was no danger to the public from leaded gasoline, properly stored and handled. Lleaded gas was back. Some people warned that there could be long-term effects of low-level lead poisoning and that the safety of lead in the environment could not be assured, but they were ignored.

Concern about lead poisoning grew gradually over subsequent decades. Lead was banned from house paint in 1978, but the industry maintained that only people with acute symptoms of lead poisoning had reason to worry.

In 1979, Herbert Needleman, a researcher at the University of Pittsburgh, reported that children who had lead in their teeth, but no obvious symptoms of lead poisoning, had lower average IQ levels and shorter attention spans than children without elevated lead exposure. The industry mounted a furious counterattack, accusing him of incompetence, dishonesty, and "junk science." Further research has not only proven Needleman correct, but demonstrated that there is no safe level of lead exposure for children. Down to the lowest levels we can detect in children's blood, lead exposure reduces IQ and may cause behavioral problems. Children are at most risk as infants and toddlers, and remain at risk until the age of 5 when the brain has largely finished developing. (Of course lead is bad for everyone, but only young children are at risk of permanent neurological damage from very low exposures.) Most recently, Needleman has showed that juveniles convicted of delinquency have average lead levels 10 times those of a comparison group from the same area.

Although we no longer add lead to the environment in paint, gasoline and plumbing solder, little proactive effort has been made to remove the lead that is already there. CDC estimates that nearly 1 million children in the U.S. are affected by excessive lead burdens. Most of these children are from low income families, because the paint must be old and deteriorating in order to pose a major hazard. Poor children are also at disproportionate risk from lead in soil and dust because they are more likely to live in undesirable areas near major highways, bridges and viaducts (which were painted with leaded paint which was typically sandblasted off when the structures were repainted), or manufacturing plants that emitted lead pollution.

A federally funded program pays to screen children for lead poisoning, but no action is taken when levels are below 10 mcg/dl, and even at levels above that action consists only of counseling. When children test above 15 mcg/dl, public health workers will inspect the child's home. However, there is little funding available to remove the lead paint if it is found. Wealthy landlords may be required to abate the hazard, but it can take years to force them to do so and meanwhile, the family may have no safe place to live because of the shortage of affordable housing in much of the country. If the homeowner is of modest means -- as is often the case in inner city multi-family housing -- some subsidized loans may be available but the resources are insufficient. Because of the danger of losing their housing, families are often reluctant to cooperate with the authorities and allow an inspection.

The lead industry has never been held to account for this invisible disaster. It would be expensive to finally remove lead contamination from the low-income housing stock, but it would cost far less than the war in Iraq.

Meanwhile, if you suspect there may be leaded paint in your home, and you have young children or children visit you, you can have an inspection done inexpensively, or possibly free. If there is lead paint, don't try to scrape it off -- that just creates contaminated dust. The best thing to do is replace the woodwork, but professionals can remove or encapsulate the lead by less expensive means. This should only be done by licensed professionals!

If you can't afford to remove the lead, keep the house scrupulously clean by wet mopping all of the surfaces. TSP is the best detergent for this purpose. Window wells and window sills are the worst places for lead dust so vacuum and wipe those areas frequently. Have children wash their hands often, and definitely before eating.

Now that our national leaders are committed to a culture of life, perhaps they will take note of what is happening to children who are actually alive.

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