Tulane professor of urban geochemistry Howard Mielke has been working for four decades to save the children of New Orleans from the dangerous effects of lead contamination. And though he has discovered proven methods for geomapping where lead is most likely to be found—in Louisiana and across the nation—the United States is still not close to eradicating exposure for children.
Published on July 15 by ThinkProgress, “The Lead Crisis: Tackling an Invisible, Dangerous Neurotoxin” investigates what has kept the nation from effectively, and permanently, tackling lead contamination.
The article begins with a focus on Mielke and the ongoing work he does with a team of researchers to determine where there is lead in New Orleans soil. “It’s a long story and it’s a continuing one, and it would be nice to have an ending to it,” Mielke told ThinkProgress.
Experts, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have determined that there are no safe levels of lead exposure for children. And according to Mielke, the best way to minimize the negative health consequences is not by screening children in a doctor’s office after exposure, but by determining where there is lead in the environment and removing it. The article investigates why this is not standard policy. The reason, it suggests, is not because of faulty methods to find lead—but because of race-based neglect:
“We know where the higher lead levels are going to be. This is not complicated. We know that in the deep interiors of our urban centers that’s where the problem really lies,” said the University of Cincinnati’s Kim Dietrich, director of epidemiology and biostatistics at the university’s College of Medicine.
The article continues by comparing the cost of clean up versus the cost of letting lead remain in soil and water:
[Mielke] estimates that a soil cleanup program—that replaces high-lead soil with cleaner low-lead soil—would cost an estimated $12 million for a mid-size city.
On the other hand, the cost of inaction is enormous. In 2002, researchers found that even at low levels of lead exposure, the costs associated with direct medical care and potential productivity losses for lead-burdened U.S. children when they become adults amounts to $43 billion annually. This does not include special education costs or the costs of incarceration.
And economist Elise Gould from the Economic Policy Institute has estimated that the cost for lead paint hazard control just for homes considered to be a significant risk—because the homes had a combination of both lead paint hazards and low income families with children under the age of 6 years—is an estimated $1.2 to $11.0 billion.
While geomapping—pinpointing lead hot spots across the nation—is costly, it is not as expensive as treatment for children who have been exposed. And methods like Mielke’s are proven to work. This leads to the question that if the nation knows how to tackle this problem, why has it not?
"I always have a problem with the argument that there isn’t enough money,” said [lead expert and Columbia University professor David] Rosner. “That’s a social decision. We make the decision. We have plenty of money when we want to use it for different things.”
He described lead poisoning as the longest running childhood epidemic in American history and an issue that could have been addressed a century ago. But the public ignored the issue, he said.
“The rest of the country basically saw it as an idiosyncratic thing, affecting just a few Black kids and Hispanic kids and therefore unimportant,” said Rosner, whose research focuses on public health, social history, and the politics of occupational disease and industrial pollution.
“We knew about it, we knew what causes it, we knew where the danger was. There’s nothing about it that’s magic, but we keep studying it,” Rosner said with a wry chuckle. “We just keep studying it and watching it. And it’s terrifying.”
Read the full article here.