The city of Flint, Michigan, set headlines ablaze in late 2015 when news of lead poisoning made its way to the national media. But a recent study of poisoning levels across the US has shown close to 3,000 areas throughout the country where contamination rates greatly outpace Flint’s, but only receive a fraction of the attention.
A combination of government negligence and corruption led to five percent of Flint’s children being diagnosed with lead poisoning. A new examination, conducted by Reuters, found that in places like Warren, Pennsylvania, 36 percent of tested children had high levels of lead, and in major cities like Cleveland, Philadelphia, and Baltimore had elevated rates of 40 and 50 percent over the last ten years.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) website states that the effects of lead poisoning are irreversible, “Protecting children from exposure to lead is important to lifelong good health. No safe blood lead level in children has been identified. Even low levels of lead in blood have been shown to affect IQ, ability to pay attention, and academic achievement. And effects of lead exposure cannot be corrected.” it says.
The CDC’s threshold for elevated levels of lead in blood is five micrograms per deciliter in children up to six years old, with even the slightest elevation having the potential to slow development or lower IQ. The CDC estimated that 2.5 percent of small children nationwide are living with elevated poison levels.
These areas are similar to Flint in that their contamination issues stem from industrial waste, plumbing, aging paint, and governmental negligence, though locals do not receive nearly the amount of funding of Flint.
Using US Census Data, Reuters found that nearly 300 zip code areas (with an average population of 7,500) and 2,606 census tracts (areas with up to 4,000 residents apiece) had rates of lead poisoning that doubled Flint’s.
Dr. Helen Egger, chair of NYU Langone Medical Center’s Child Study Center’s Child and Adolescent Psychiatry said, “The disparities you’ve found between different areas have stark implications…Where lead poisoning remains common, many children will have developmental delays and start out behind all the rest.”
President and CEO of the Baltimore-based Green & Healthy Homes Initiative Ruth Ann Norton told FiveThirtyEight.com in a 2015 interview that despite progress being made on Charm City’s lead paint issue, the problem was far from being solved in the US.
“When we tell people we’ve had a 98 percent reduction, I sometimes get applause,” she said, “But the rest of that sentence is that we still have 535,000 children a year being poisoned in the United States.”
Robert Walker, co-chair of the CDC’s Lead Content Work Group remarked that he hopes, “this data spurs questions from the public to community leaders who can make changes…I would think that it would turn some heads.”