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Life Arts    H4'ed 2/12/12

Poisoning Urban Children: White Privilege and Toxic Lead

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Poisoning Urban Children: White Privilege and Toxic Lead  

By Peter Montague and Maria B. Pellerano

For Christmas this year, Congress gave the nation's urban children  a gift that will keep on giving -- a 94% cut in funds for lead-poisoning prevention. Once a child is poisoned by toxic lead, permanent brain damage reduces I.Q., lowers grades in school, and diminishes self-control. This, in turn, can lead to frustration, a sense of failure, impulsiveness, aggression, and, for some, violence, crime, and prison.  For decades, "conservatives" in Congress have ignored the problem of urban children poisoned by toxic lead. This is one of the reasons why the U.S. currently holds one out of every 100 adults behind bars (2.3 million prisoners total).  (More on lead and prisons in a moment. [Needleman, 2002 ; Wilkinson, 2003 ; Masters, 1997])

Lead is a soft, grey metal with many practical uses, from bathroom pipes to bullets. Unfortunately, it is highly toxic to humans.  Despite eons of knowledge about the toxicity of lead, during most of the 20th century Congress allowed the paint and gasoline industries to lace their products with millions of tons of the stuff, which of course ended up in the environment where much of it still remains available to poison unsuspecting children.  Urban neighborhoods are full of lead today, in soil and in paint flaking off old buildings.  Low-income families are hardest hit because they tend to live in old buildings poorly maintained.

With a peculiar mix of frugality and cruelty, Congress's $1 trillion spending bill for 2012 shrank a small ($30 million per year) federal lead-poisoning-prevention program to a minuscule $2 million annual effort, a 94% cut. And it's no surprise to anyone that the children harmed by this grinch move are mostly city kids, which means they're mostly African-American and Hispanic. The nation's medical establishment has been reporting excessive lead in urban children (75% of them of color) since 1952 (Williams, 1952) -- so we have 59 years of studies, all showing the same thing. Therefore, in this rare instance, Congress relied on the best available science and knew exactly what it was doing. It was saddling hundreds of thousands of urban children with persistent cognitive damage and elevated blood pressure for life. 

Less than 2 weeks after Congress delivered its toxic Christmas gift, a federal Advisory Committee on Lead Poisoning Prevention recommended that the official standard for declaring a child poisoned by lead should be cut in half.

The Advisory Committee on Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (ACCLPP) issued its  report  Jan. 4, recommending that the official definition of "elevated blood lead levels" should be reduced by half, from its present 10 units to 5. The definition of a unit is very geeky -- one microgram of lead in one deciliter of blood, written ug/dL. A microgram is a millionth of a gram and there are 28 grams in an ounce. A deciliter is a tenth of a liter and a liter is about a quart.

Even as it was recommending a standard of 5, the ACCLPP committee emphasized that even 5 is not safe. In its report, the Committee repeated several times that the only safe level of lead in a child's blood is zero. The main effect of lead is to impair cognition, which is usually measured (after age 5) by an I.Q. test. Many studies confirm that any amount of lead reduces a child's I.Q. to some degree. (Binns, 2007 ; Bellinger, 2008b; Canfield, 2003; CDC 2004; Chiodo, 2004; Needleman, 2004 Rogan, 2003; Schwartz, 1994)

The body of a healthy 2-year-old contains about 10 deciliters of blood (in plain English, one liter). (Russell, 1949) At 5 micrograms per deciliter, that child would carry a total of 50 micrograms of lead in his or her blood. Fifty micrograms is a speck. If you took one adult aspirin tablet and crushed it into 8000 equal pieces, one piece would weigh 50 micrograms. So, yes, lead is a potent poison.   Such "low" levels of lead are harmful because, as the human body evolved, there just wasn't much lead in the environment, so we never evolved ways to detoxify or eliminate it from our bodies quickly.  Based on careful analysis of ancient bones, several studies have shown that the average lead in the blood of pre-industrial humans was 0.016 ug/dL.  (Flegal, 1992)  Therefore, U.S. children with 5 ug/dL in their blood have 300 times as much lead as pre-industrial humans.  So "low" levels of lead, like the recommended 5 ug/dL, aren't really low at all, in an evolutionary or biological sense.   

Medical researchers have a pretty clear idea how much lead causes how much brain damage. The ACCLPP  report  says that a blood-lead level of four ug/dL will reduce a child's I.Q. by two to five points, with a best estimate of 3.7 points. Reliable studies have shown that blood-lead of even two ug/dL will reduce a child's I.Q. by about three points. (Canfield, 2003Lanphear, 2005)

Does a loss of three or four I.Q. points matter?

In 2007, the New York Times ran a front-page story describing what it means for a group of children to lose just three I.Q. points (Carey, 2007):

"Three points on an I.Q. test may not sound like much," the Times said. "But experts say it can be a tipping point for some people -- the difference between a high B average and a low A, for instance. That, in turn, can have a cumulative effect that could mean the difference between admission to an elite private liberal-arts college and a less exclusive public one."

Of course the Times did not mention it, but for some children the loss of three I.Q. points could equally well mean the difference between a high D average and a low C, with a cumulative effect that could mean the difference between staying in school and dropping out. We also know that 10% of young men of color who drop out of high school end up in prison or in juvenile detention. (Sum, 2009)  So three I.Q. points can mean the difference between freedom and prison.

Importantly, loss of I.Q. hurts low-I.Q. people more than it hurts high-I.Q. people. The average I.Q. is 100, and by definition half of all people have below-average I.Q.s. If your I.Q. is 130 and you lose 3 points, you're losing about 2% of your total capacity. If your I.Q. is 80 and you lose 3 points, you're losing about 4% of your capacity. So toxic lead disproportionately damages those who can least afford to lose brain power.

Some health officials justify the status quo by pointing out that there used to be a lot more toxic lead in people's blood than there is today, and it's true.  Thirty years ago, the median blood lead level in pre-schoolers of all races was 15 ug/dL and 88% of U.S. children had more than 10 ug/dL.  (Bellinger, 2008b)  The estimated average I.Q. loss in those generations is 9.2 points.  They are our leaders today, which may help explain why we're in the shape we're in.   Unfortunately, reducing the median lead level from 15 to the present 1.9 (chiefly by phasing out lead in gasoline) did not produce a proportionate rise in I.Q.  Kids today have a median I.Q. roughly 5 points higher than kids in the 1970s.  The reasons for this are complicated but basically there's a greater loss of I.Q. as lead rises from 1 to 10 ug/dL compared to the loss that occurs above 10 ug/dL. (Bellinger, 2008b)

The ACCLPP estimates that 450,000 U.S. children currently have 5 ug/dL or more lead in their blood. As we've seen, Congress has allocated a total of $2 million in 2012 to help these children, which means each child can get $4.45 worth of services.  A simple pin-prick blood test can cost $10.00, and removing or encapsulating lead in a home costs $7000 on average.

In the U.S., there are currently 4 million homes contaminated with lead-based paint with young children living in them.  If the entire $2 million lead-poison-prevention budget for 2012 were spent removing or encapsulating lead in homes, only 285 of the 4 million homes could be cleaned in a year.  To clean all 4 million homes would cost $28 billion.  But, as we'll see, the financial return on such an investment would be immediate and large.

And it's not like this problem has sneaked up on us.  The paint industry openly acknowledged in the 1890s that lead-based paint was dangerous; in 1897 at least one company, Aspinall's, was advertising proudly that its paint "is NOT made with lead and is non poisonous." The poisoning of children by dust from lead-based paint was first reported in medical literature in 1904. Lead-based paint was banned for interior use in Australia and most of Europe during the 1920s. The U.S. delayed another 50 years, banning it in 1978.  Furthermore, just as Europe was phasing out lead-based paint in the 1920s, the U.S. oil industry introduced toxic lead into gasoline in 1925. (Hernberg, 2000Silbergeld, 1997) The tailpipes of automobiles then spewed a fine dust of toxic lead -- some 30 million tons of it -- from sea to shining sea for the next 70 years, until Congress finally phased it out slowly between 1973 and 1995.  The soil in most U.S. cities today is still laced with toxic automotive lead, which kids still track into their homes.  (Urban gardeners beware -- get your soil tested for lead.)

The problem of urban children poisoned by lead-based paint was first acknowledged by U.S. public health doctors in the 1930s. The City of Baltimore began routine surveillance of lead in children in 1931, finding black children poisoned seven times as often as white children. (Hicks, 1970)  Reports of large numbers of children poisoned by lead-based paint appeared in medical literature in the 1950s. (Williams, 1952 ; Montague, 1992) Those early reports all emphasized that lead was mainly a danger to poor, African-American children living in urban slums.  For a society blinded by 350 years of white privilege in law and custom, a silent epidemic of poisoning affecting mainly low-income black families had no political meaning. To judge by Congress's action in 2011, it still doesn't.

The failure to solve the problem of toxic lead seems particularly odd because billions of dollars each year could be gained by eliminating lead from housing. A 2005 policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP, 2005) reviewed several cost-benefit analyses, all showing that eliminating lead from housing would save billions each year because I.Q. translates into earning power which, in turn, translates into tax revenues.

Here are some numbers from the Academy's 2005 statement. There are 4 million homes in the U.S. needing lead removal or encapsulation. At $7000 to clean an average home, eliminating the lead paint problem would require a one-time investment of $28 billion. The savings would be $43 billion in the first year and each year thereafter because children with higher I.Q.s tend to get more schooling and then jobs with higher pay. So lead remediation would pay for itself in less than one year and would then save tens of billions each year thereafter. (Grosse, 2002 ; Gould, 2009) An investment of $28 billion is less than the U.S. has spent every six months in Iraq for the past 8 years.

Other recent studies make the same point, but you get the idea -- there's a huge amount of money to be saved by ceasing to poison our children. (Gould, 2009)

To state the reverse: we are forgoing billions of dollars in income and taxes each year in order to keep our urban children poisoned. This is an astonishing use of scarce resources, to put it mildly. How can we possibly explain such a bizarre national policy?

It must be that, for the U.S. Congress, some things are more important than money.

Congress passed a law in 1971 mandating removal of lead-based paint from housing.  The federal government then dragged its feet and bungled the task for 20 years.  In 1990, Dr. Herbert Needleman, a well-known lead expert, told the New York Times that, "The Government's record in dealing with this problem is one of absolute dereliction."  (Schmidt, 1990)   In 2012, the situation is even worse.  Why?

Here is a hypothesis grounded firmly in U.S. history: Perhaps many politicians of the past 35 years, both Republican and Democrat, have found it advantageous to keep inner-city kids behind the 8-ball by diminishing their I.Q.s early in life, making them less successful in school, plus making them more impulsive, aggressive, and potentially violent, thus more likely to end up in prison.  (Needleman, 2002; Wilkinson, 2003; Montague, 1997; Masters, 1997; Nevin, 2006) From that perspective, exposing urban children to toxic lead could be seen as part of a well-established pattern -- a school-to-prison pipeline, aided by a war on drugs that targets people of color and a private prison industry that kicks back money into election campaigns to promote public policies that keep the jails overflowing.  Mass incarceration of blacks in particular has created a legal opportunity to once again discriminate against them in jobs, housing, voting, jury duty, public assistance, educational opportunity, small business loans, and more -- in sum, the "New Jim Crow." (Alexander, 2010)  We hope our hypothesis is wrong, but the historical facts speak for themselves.


A version of this essay appeared on Alternet February 7, 2012.

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Peter Montague, Ph.D., is a historian and journalist whose work has appeared in Alternet; Counterpunch; Grist; Huffington Post; Multinational Monitor; The Nation; New Solutions; OpEdNews; Race, Poverty & the Environment; Rachel's Environment & (more...)
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