A national coalition of scientists, health professionals and children’s advocates called on the Trump Administration this week to develop a plan to protect children from lead exposure within five years and put an end to the toxic hazard by 2030.The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that at least 4 million U.S. households with children living in them have elevated levels of lead, which can cause long-term harm to brain developmental and the nervous the system.
This crisis is particularly relevant to African Americans because black children between ages 1 and 5 are more vulnerable to lead exposure than any other racial group, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
“This matters because of the affects of lead on the mental health and development of children,” said Dr. Mark Mitchell, a co-chair of the National Medical Association’s commission on environmental health. “Reductions in IQ, the inability to learn and attention deficit disorder are associated with lead even at low levels.”
Scant research has been done to understand why African Americans suffer from lead poisoning at greater rates than others, but Mitchell said it’s most likely related to living in regions that have higher levels of toxins.
“African Americans are more likely to live near coal-fired power plants and more likely to live in urban areas where lead tends to line busy streets,” he said.
He explained that lead weights used to balance tires fall off and get crushed into dust that gets tracked indoors. Older housing and rental housing are also more likely to have peeling paint and old paint that falls off and contaminates homes.
Lead poisoning, although not as widespread as it was in the 1970s, is still an extremely significant health problem affecting millions—yet it garners little attention nationally. A recent investigative report identified 3,000 areas of the country with lead poisoning rates that far exceed national water safety standards, reminiscent of Flint, Michigan’s catastrophic water contamination that first garnered national attention in 2015.
When lead levels are extremely high it totally disrupts the ability of children to live normal lives. In February, the Washington Post published a story about the highest blood lead levels found in Washington, D.C. in decades: Two-year-old Heavenz Luster had 120 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood in her body—24 times the level at which the CDC says medical concern is warranted.
Heavenz doesn’t answer when her name is called. She’s not able to point or use words. She screams and rocks from side to side for no apparent reason. She’s anxious and has delayed cognitive and motor skills. The child was poisoned with lead while living in a private house—with peeling paint—provided by the city for homeless families.
So what are our elected leaders at the city, state and national level doing to prevent what happened to Heavenz from happening to others?
In September, during the presidential campaign, Trump called Flint’s water problem “a shame” and vowed to fix it. But, instead of committing resources to address the problem, the Trump administration sought to slash $16 million funds used to reduce lead risk.
Fortunately, Congress didn’t support Trump’s planned cuts. But where he stands on protecting families from lead is completely unclear. After all, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson said during his confirmation hearing that dealing with lead would be a priority for him—not only abating lead, but also establishing clinics to address lead exposure.
Carson, a renowned brain surgeon, knows how serious this problem is. But will he take any action? Can he? Families around the nation are waiting for answers.