Reuters has accomplished what the government has failed to do—compile neighborhood-specific data exposing the blood levels of lead in children. The results show thousands of cities where lead poisoning levels are 2, 3, 4 and even 6 times those of the children in Flint, Michigan at the height of their contamination in 2014-2015. Data on childhood lead contamination has never before been published at a neighborhood level. The poisoning has been unnoticed and unfunded by government agencies.
In 2014-2015 Flint, MI made Americans aware of the dangers of lead exposure for children. However, many would be shocked to learn that their community may have higher levels of contamination than Flint. Reuters found 3,000 neighborhoods where the lead poisoning rates were at least twice as high as Flint and more than 1,100 of them had a rate at least four times higher.
To identify these locations, Reuters obtained childhood lead testing results from state health departments and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and examined them according to specific zip codes or census tracts. Thus far, child lead poisoning levels have only been published at a county or state level, which averaged areas with high and low exposure rates and hid the precise areas where children are experiencing high levels of poisoning.
In South Bend, Indiana, results from a ten-year span showed that almost one-third of small children tested had greater than six times Flint’s rate of lead poisoning. In 49 different tracts across Pennsylvania, at least 40 percent of children tested high for lead poisoning. Children in dozens of Californian cities have heightened levels of lead, and children in Fresno, California have levels three times higher than those of Flint with higher percentages of children found to have heightened levels of lead in their blood – 13.6 percent in Fresno compared to 5 percent in Flint.
Reuters has unveiled a nation-wide problem of high contamination and low funding. Americans cannot count on existing federal funds to mitigate the crisis. Dr. Luis Galup, pathologist and county health officer in South Bend, IN. said “We are the lowest of the low in terms of public health funding.”
The amount of children being tested for lead has declined in many areas with dangerous lead levels. Local Women, Infants and Children, or WIC, programs used to provide childhood blood lead tests, but has stopped doing so due to lack of funding. “I bet there are hardly any tests being done now,” said WIC program director Sue Taylor. “The funding dried up.”
Across the country, lead exposure varies from city to city, and millions of children do not get tested for lead exposure. Lack of funds prohibit the levels of lead in children and their environments from getting tested, the clean–up of lead contamination, and the medical treatment and possible life-long assistance needed for children who are poisoned. Many families do not have the money to clean up lead-contaminated homes on their own.
The CDC claims that it does not have adequate funding to handle lead poisoning across America, and they urge residents of dangerous spots to reach out to community leaders and health officials to seek lead abatement grants . “I hope this data spurs questions from the public to community leaders who can make changes,” said epidemiologist and co-chair of the CDC’s Lead Content Work Group, Robert Walker. “I would think that it would turn some heads.”
The CDC states that, since even a slight elevation in lead exposure can stunt development and reduce IQ, children who test high merit an immediate public health response. However, the CDC has been directly responsible for childhood lead exposure by telling residents that areas were safe where high percentages of children tested had elevated levels of lead levels in their blood. In fact, the CDC was unaware of the extent of the problem until the Reuters report.
Although Reuters strived for accurate results by using small geographic regions with adequate sample sizes over a period of 11 years, there are still holes in the data. Only 21 states provided data for Reuters to analyze. For example, the city of Cleveland, OH. has been known to have elevated levels for the past decade, but Ohio’s state health department refused to provide child blood test results to Reuters.
Children with lead poisoning are shown to do poorly in school and have higher drop out rates, engage in criminal activity, and have difficulty getting and keeping a job. As a neurotoxin, lead can cause irreversible development delays and impair cognitive function. Disorders such as ADHD, anger and behavioral problems, mental retardation, and autism are common in children exposed to high levels of lead.
“The disparities you’ve found between different areas have stark implications,” said Dr. Helen Egger, chair of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at NYU Langone Medical Center’s Child Study Center. “Where lead poisoning remains common, many children will have developmental delays and start out behind all the rest.”
Common sources of lead contamination are old, crumbling paint, contaminated soil and water, plumbing, industrial waste, and dust from construction and home remodeling. Blood tests only determine the extent of a child’s lead exposure, not what has caused their exposure. Further environmental testing is necessary to determine what is causing children to be experiencing elevated lead levels.