The price of lead

Lead poisoning in the US is a national madness that is causing untold damage to the country's bodies and brains.

Sometimes it seems that madness has taken a grip of the US. Its gun-worship; its ambivalent relationship with alcohol; its rush to stuff its face full of synthetic opioids; its belief that it rules the universe or has the right to do so…maybe the copuntry has been sent bonkers by lead poisoning? Its people are full of lead. Not bullets – just lead.

Lead is highly toxic. It accumulates in the body and affects almost every organ or bodily function. Long-term exposure to lead over months or years eventually leads to clinical toxicity and irreversible problems such as cognitive impairment, kidney dysfunction, and peripheral neuropathy. Young children are particularly susceptible because lead is particularly damaging to developing nervous systems. A child suffering from lead poisoning at the start may find it difficult to concentrate, or become irritable; but long-term exposure can eventually lead to learning disabilities, behavioural disorders, slowed development, and anemia. Adults with lead poisoning may experience headaches, neuropathy, abdominal pain, and changes in behaviour. In other words, lead poisoning drives people physically ill and mentally disturbed.

From the 1950s through to the 1980s in the US, leaded gasoline was considered the main source of environmental lead contamination and from 1973 its use in cars was phased out. Its use in all on-road vehicles was eventually completely banned in 1996. This led to the average blood level of lead decreasing by an estimated 78% in the US between 1976 and 1991.

Adults with lead poisoning may experience headaches, neuropathy, abdominal pain, and changes in behaviour. In other words, lead poisoning drives people insane

But lead poisoning in America continues to be a problem in just about every state, although most attention has focused recently on the city of Flint, in Michigan, where criminal charges have been filed against 10 current and former state employees, who are suspected of enabling the proliferation of lead-poisoned water in the city. Mike Glasgow, the utilities administrator of Flint and former of supervisor of the city’s water treatment plant, did a deal with investigators and had charges against him dropped in May this year. He admitted filing false information about how much lead there was in Flint’s water.

Since the early 1900s it’s been known that paint containing lead was a main source of lead poisoning. The use of such paint indoors was banned in several countries by the end of the 1920s. In the US, the amount of lead being used in interior paints started to be reduced by the lead industry by the 1940s. But it was not until 1978 that lead-containing paints were actually banned in the US. Any American born before 1978 may have had some exposure to lead paint – and even those born later may do too.

Much of the US housing stock pre-dates 1978 and is full of lead paint, indoors and outside. Take Providence County in the state of Rhode Island; 81% of the homes there were built before 1978 and 49% before World War Two. Nationally, around 87% of US homes were built before 1940. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA): “lead paint is still present in millions of homes, sometimes under layers of newer paint.” Today in the US more than 500,000 American children have more than the safe level of lead in their bloodstream; 23 million homes have one or more lead hazards; and an unknown number of Americans drink water that at some point has been flushed through lead pipes.

The water crisis in Flint erupted in April 2014, when the city, at the behest of a state-appointed emergency manager, severed its connection from the Detroit water system and began drawing water from the polluted and corrosive Flint River. In an egregious violation of federal law, the switch was made without implementing corrosion control measures. That water corroded the city’s pipes, causing lead to leach into drinking water. Local, state and federal officials ignored residents who complained about the foul-smelling water, and both Democratic and Republican officials conspired to keep the high lead levels a secret. In October 2014, the General Motors engine plant in Flint stopped using Flint River water because it was corroding engine parts. Water that was deemed too damaging for industrial use was nevertheles still pumped into the homes of Flint residents for 18 months. In October 2015 the state of Michigan switched Flint’s water supply back to Detroit’s. Michigan Governor Rick Snyder declared a state of emergency in January 2016. However, extensive damage had already been done to the pipes. The water continues, to this day, to be contaminated with lead and other chemicals.

The cause was the omission of an additive that is normally used in water city treatment. The mineral, orthophosphate, blocks lead corrosion in service line pipes, which have in the past been made of lead. Without this, the pipes will slough off lead particles, which are then washed into the water source. But the Environmental Protection Agency only regulates some of America’s utilities in the country; nor does it reinforce restrictions on lead in drinking water, though it does provide guidance as to maximum levels. There are reckoned to be 3,000 American neighbourhoods where children have double the level of lead poisoning than that found in Flint.

Excessive levels of lead can also enter the food chain. The environmental pressure group As You Sow says that some US chocolate products have trace amounts of toxic heavy metals, such as lead and cadmium. The group tested for metals 50 chocolate products manufactured by well-known companies, including Trader Joe’s, Hershey’s, Whole Foods, Ghirardelli, and Earth Circle Organic; 35 of the products contained lead and cadmium, at levels that were higher than those set by California’s Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act.

Flint residents have been unable to drink water out of their taps for the past two years

The US has dozens of Flints. In California, for example, 10 cities and counties, including San Francisco, San Diego, Los Angeles, and Oakland, have successfully sued and won an initial judgment against three lead pigment manufacturers for $1.15 billion. That money will be invested in removing lead paint from the walls of homes in these cities. In Herculaneum, Missouri, where half the children within a mile of the America’s biggest lead smelter suffered lead poisoning, a jury awarded a $320 million verdict against Fluor Corporation, one of the world’s largest construction and engineering firms. Many homes in Detroit, the former capital of the auto industry, are, even today, lead paint disaster areas.

At the end of August it was reported that lead had been found in the drinking water of almost 90% of 249 schools (25% of the total) in the state of Utah; nine of them exceed 15 micrograms per liter, which is the level at which action should be taken, according to the country’s Environmental Protection Agency. Flint’s residents have been unable to drink their tap water for the past two years. It might be the richest country in the world – but all too often America is content to let its citizenry dwell in standards that would be considered disgraceful in Bangladesh or some other poverty-stricken place.