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Awaiting the Lead-Poisoning Tipping Point

A public health disaster in my native Cleveland once sparked political action, and that needs to happen again

A sign hangs in a window, in Lakewood, Ohio. More than half a million U.S. children are now believed to have lead poisoning, roughly twice the previous high estimate, health officials reported Thursday. The increase is the result of the government last year lowering the threshold for lead poisoning, so now more children are considered at riskLead Poisoning, Lakewood, USA

Tony Dejak/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Cleveland is the butt of jokes for any number of reasons, from its storied sports misfortune to its terrible weather. As a native still in love with the place, mentions of my hometown being the “Mistake on the Lake” usually get me clenching my jaw, if not my fist. Much like family, I feel as though only we get to make fun of us.

The most epic bit of comedy that you’ve likely heard about my city centers around an episode of environmental catastrophe. The Cuyahoga River, once the symbol for American industrial water pollution, has caught fire more than a dozen times. Firefighters put out the famous 1969 blaze so quickly that some media outlets used images from the 1952 fire, sensationalizing the later event. Still, this stark evidence of the damage of industrial pollution breathed life into American environmentalism, and it inspired political action. On New Year’s Day 1970, less than six months after the flames were extinguished, President Nixon signed into law the act that gave birth to the Environmental Protection Agency. Two years later, as Randy Newman sang his nostalgic ode “Burn On,” the EPA followed up with the Clean Water Act, the legislation that still regulates pollutants in U.S. waters.

Nearly 50 years later, we again have a conspicuous crook for a president. Donald Trump is the kind of person who, in 2019, still snickers about climate change whenever it snows. And now, Trump is trying to commandeer the purse strings of Congress to satiate his white-nationalist base. He is busy trying to build the walls we don’t need, ignoring ones that we might.

While we rightfully panic about the increasing dangers of a warming planet wrought by human industry, our negligence in housing — paired with a helping of systemic racism and poverty — has insured that children today are exposed to environmental dangers that should have been eradicated long ago. Five weeks before Trump made his declaration in an attempt to seize his border wall funding, researchers at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland published two new studies in coordination with a Cuyahoga County early-childhood initiative. Their conclusions were harrowing. Analyzing statistics obtained from the Ohio Department of Health, the Case studies found that 10.7 percent of children born in 2012 were found to have elevated blood lead level (EBLL) by age five. That’s 1,237 affected kids. And though overall lead-contamination rates for children in the region have declined for many years, kids under six in Cuyahoga County accounted for 41 percent of Ohio’s cases of elevated exposure.

According to the studies, the contaminated Cuyahoga river is not to blame. Not even Trump was at fault, though his administration eliminated two programs that focused on protecting children from lead paint in 2017. What’s happening in Cleveland is the result of a system that has been broken for more than 40 years. The contamination is in the very houses that many of the children are living in, and in the ground on which they walk and play. 

Rob Fischer, one of the Case professors who led the studies, tells Rolling Stone that many Ohioans thought the problem had been fixed. “We have old housing stock, high poverty and disinvestment,” Fischer says. “We have this tremendous industrial past, home to one of the biggest paint companies (Sherwin-Williams); we made our names in a lot of industrial solvents. The soil is as much of a threat.”

Children living in pre-1978 housing laden with lead paint is the primary threat identified by the studies. Such homes are prevalent throughout Cleveland and its suburbs, and it’s chilling to consider the likelihood of children crawling around houses containing materials that could poison them. Before age six is about the worst possible time for exposure, as the neurotoxin present in lead potentially causes permanent damage in developing brains.

The second Case study was perhaps more damning: approximately one-quarter of kindergarteners in the Cleveland public school system go to class in buildings with a history of elevated lead levels. Studies have linked EBLLs with violence and other behavioral problems as children age. Though the Case studies did not account for race and gender factors in their briefings, Fischer said that identity has been a focus of their continuing research. Already, there is a conclusion that he can reach. “Overwhelmingly,” Fischer says, “it is an African-American issue.”

All throughout the nation, more communities are experiencing similar lead-exposure crises. The abundance of Democrats poised to run for president should seize this issue. Some of the most thoughtful candidates, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), have put forward detailed proposals aimed at young, working-class families, (like Warren’s universal pre-K childcare plan). One way to improve Warren’s plan, in particular, would be to add a provision for families raising children exposed to lead paint, a subsidy that would help them make home improvements or seek alternative housing. We can tax the wealthy just a little bit more to pay for such measures.

Before the government shutdown took effect in December, the Trump White House made a show of announcing its new plan to help prevent children from being exposed to lead. The program appears flaccid upon first look, void of deadlines or any new strategies for enforcement. One of the Case studies found that, despite Medicaid requirements that children be tested for lead exposure at 12 and 24 months, the government only tested 50 percent of children by age one and only 34 percent by age two. The government’s own standards are failing, and the Trump administration’s plan reads more like a summary of previous failures while not taking its own into account. Blaming others won’t help these kids.

So, what will solve this? “We have to get past this ‘it’s too expensive’ or ‘it’s too complicated to fix’ [mentality]” Fischer says. “It’s going to take a civic investment.” Fischer and I agree on a number of solutions: Find out who owns the properties. Make sure that until they’re fixed, young children don’t live in these structures. Ensure that landlords acquire lead certifications to legally rent properties. Improve schools and train teachers to handle this issue so that they don’t send “bad kids” on the path to prison.

As we spoke, Fischer stood by an earlier comparison he made to the Flint, Michigan, debacle in a prior interview, remarking that rates of lead exposure in the Cleveland area have “routinely been double-to-three-times what Flint had at its peak.” Indeed he should, as the New York Times reported back in the spring of 2016, 14.2 percent of children in Cleveland tested positive for elevated lead in their blood — twice the percentage of Flint’s kids at the time. Yes, there is a chance that the mere mention of Flint could leave Clevelanders worried about the water and not minding the house paint. But once citizens refocus on what is endangering their kids — as in ‘69 — this moment could spark a movement. As the president calls attention to his fake emergency, it is vital that we call attention to what should truly be alarming our communities.

As even folks on the left fantasized about applying the immense power of emergency declarations to their varied cause célèbres, I tried to think about what we should do with the system we have in place. If we wanted to do something about the environmental racism eating away at the intelligence and futures of children in my hometown, we could. Perhaps politicians might help, if we push them. The nation has largely failed Flint. But it did rise once to meet an environmental challenge, and that movement even started in Cleveland. It can happen again. These kids need the kind of action that we saw in 1969.

Do we need to light a river on fire to get our neighbors and our government to act? If so, then you should know that Trump’s EPA is trying to weaken water-pollution standards and the conservative-heavy Supreme Court just agreed to weigh whether contamination of groundwater into rivers, lakes and oceans violates the Clean Water Act. We might be back there soon enough.

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