Lead crisis shifts as infrastructure crumbles, experts say

Susan Heavey

About Susan Heavey

Susan Heavey, (@susanheavey) a Washington, D.C.-based journalist, is AHCJ’s topic leader on social determinants of health and curates related material at healthjournalism.org. She welcomes questions and suggestions on resources and tip sheets at determinants@healthjournalism.org.

A water crisis brewing in Flint, Mich., for nearly two years exposed children and others to lead from contaminated water. It also exposed health disparities from infrastructure. Glass of Water via photopin (license)

Photo: Glass of Water via Flickr

A year after the Flint water crisis made national waves, the legacy of lead continues to draw attention as reporters follow up on the evolving public health concern.

What was once a public battle over perception as manufacturers’ inundated products with lead – from gasoline to painted cribs, toys and houses – has shifted to a more subtle, but no less serious disaster, according to public health historians Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner.

Markowitz and Rosner, authors of “Lead Wars: The Politics of Science and the Fate of America’s Children,” recently told AHCJ members that while children with lead poisoning are no longer exhibiting dramatic seizures and other effects, continued poisoning from the ground and other sources still is a serious problem for an estimated half a million U.S. children.

Children may no longer be eating large chips of lead paint, but the contaminant still seeps in through air and soil. “Lead has become a problem not just in the pipes in Flint, but it’s now literally a problem countrywide, and also specifically in lead paint cases, which have been historically the biggest issue for children,” Rosner said during the Nov. 4 AHCJ webcast.

Companies had long understood the health problem of lead, but over the decades shifted blame rather than tackle the toxicity, he said. “We’re still suffering from it.”

Although lead most often is considered a problem in urban dwellings and areas, it affects rural areas as well, Rosner said. Across the United States, 23 million homes still contain lead, with young children living in 4 million of them.

For journalists researching lead stories in their community, gathering information can be tough since there is little national tracking and each locality up to its own devices, the two professors said. For example, part of the problem with pipes is just identifying which ones still contain lead, a project that some municipalities track but others do not. Markowitz and Rosner said they plan to present their repository of information online in coming weeks (stay tuned; we will update on healthjournalism.org)

Testing and care also are still a concern, they said. While there is no treatment, the cases with chronic exposure mean children need more access to special educational services that may or may not be available or consistent in some school districts. Better consistency in testing all children for exposure also is needed, Rosner said.

“In a certain sense, the history of lead poisoning in children is a great story of a public health victory,” Markowitz said. “We have gotten lead out of paint and out of gasoline. But it is also a public health failure because the lead that was put on the walls, the lead that was put into the gasoline continues to poison children in the United States today.”

“It really is unconscionable that 500,000 children today still have their life chances decreased and their ability to succeed thwarted.”

Missed the live presentation? AHCJ members can access the archived version.

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