Widespread lead poisoning crisis persists, despite established science on solutions

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

One of the most harmful health problems in the United States today, as it has been for decades, is lead poisoning. It’s one of the largest environmental sources of developmental problems in children, and has inflicted massive human and financial costs on communities across the country. Millions of American homes have lead exposure hazards, and millions of children have been harmed. There are areas of the United States where 90% of children have detectable levels of lead in their bloodstream.

None of this is acceptable.

Unlike a number of metals, lead has no biological function in the human body. When it is absorbed into the body, it ends up accumulating in nerve cells and inhibiting their growth and function. This is especially harmful to children, who absorb two-thirds of the lead they are exposed to and whose nervous systems are still developing. There is no safe level of lead – if it is detected in a person’s bloodstream, the damage has been done. Pharmaceuticals exist that can help remove some lead from the body, but patients sometimes experience harmful or even lethal side effects. The only surefire way to address this problem from a health perspective is to eliminate lead exposure to begin with.

This poisonous problem, to a large extent, is a crisis of choice. It is solvable using existing technology, but only if governments, companies, and nonprofits invest the needed resources into getting it done. For this reason, MEP has chosen to make lead a priority in our work, in both policy organizing and direct community work in Minnesota.

An often-invisible threat

For most of the 20th century, the omnipresent source of lead was motor vehicles. To address certain engine problems, oil companies began adding the compound tetraethyllead to gasoline. When the gas combusted, it releases tetraethyllead into the air. When lead is inhaled, the absorption rate is as high as 100%, making it especially dangerous. Though science began to recognize the devastating consequences of this gasoline additive in the early 1940s, it wasn’t until 1976 that the EPA began to order a phase-out under the Clean Air Act over industry objections and lawsuits.

Not long after EPA’s action began to take effect, crime rates in the United States fell dramatically to the far lower levels of today. There is a well-supported hypothesis that the latter benefit is largely the result of the former – that doing away with lead in gasoline helped reduce neurological problems in children that would otherwise put them at risk for harmful behavioral patterns. 

But lead hazards are by no means a thing of the past. Another major source of exposure is in drinking water, as has been so painfully illustrated by the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. Homes with lead service lines or plumbing, as well as pipes made of galvanized steel that contain lead, become sources of ingested lead as pipes corrode. Such homes can be found throughout Minnesota; the city of St. Paul alone has more than 20,000 houses with lead pipes, and actively controls the pH of municipal water to combat pipe damage.

In such houses, residents can mitigate the problem by running their sink for several minutes each morning or installing filters. Unfortunately, many residents aren’t even aware of the danger. MEP has been working to help families test their water and take steps toward mitigating lead exposure (more on that work in an upcoming edition of the Environmental Insider.)

The other major source of poisoning is lead paint, especially common in older homes. Lead paint on windows is the primary specific culprit, as the opening and closing of the windows releases paint dust and chips that are likely to be inhaled or ingested by small children. Some government agencies offer grants for households to replace such windows, and certain kinds of encapsulating paint can also be effective at reducing the danger. But again, residents aren’t always aware of the danger or lack access to the resources to fix it.

Other sources of lead pollution exist. The use of lead in shot and tackle is notably harmful to wildlife, and fragments of shot can end up in meat consumed by humans, creating another pathway to exposure. Cigarette smoke also frequently contains lead. There are few applications of lead that cannot be replaced, and the sooner that it is eliminated from those uses, the better.

What can be done

The fortunate thing about this problem is that the solutions are well-known. In the short-term, drinking water can be filtered at the tap or at the in-home service line. Lead and galvanized steel pipes can be switched out for copper or other safe materials. Lead paint can be mitigated through replacement or covering.

The reason that so many people in Minnesota and in the United States generally still suffer from lead exposure is the lack of investment in these solutions. Complacency and the deprioritization of these critical health measures have perpetuated this environmental injustice, which disproportionately impacts low-income communities and people of color.

Replacing pipes and windows can be expensive for municipal budgets, and even more so for individual families. But the consequences of this problem are far costlier than the solutions. The Minnesota Legislature should heavily invest in programs that help communities and families eliminate lead from pipes and paint, and phase out its use wherever possible. It’s high time that the lead problem was relegated to the history books.

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