Make America great — clean up the lead-poisoning cauldrons of our inner cities

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While speaking to a crowd in Canton, Ohio, earlier in the campaign, President-elect Donald Trump said, “It used to be cars were made in Flint, and you couldn’t drink the water in Mexico. Now, the cars are made in Mexico, and you can’t drink the water in Flint!”

While we still cannot drink the water in Mexico, the reasons why we cannot drink the water in Flint, provide a profound warning of what can ensue when shortsighted decisions to save money blindly set aside environmental regulations. The Michigan Governor negated local elections, appointed conservators to revamp the budgets of several cities that switched the city water supply from the Detroit River which had provided treated water for half a century.

{mosads}On April  23, 2014 the citizens of Flint began to drink water from the Flint River, although it had been declared unfit for human consumption by the State’s own Department of the Environment.

In an act that violated federal environmental regulations, a mothballed sixty-year-old treatment plant was rushed into service. As dark, foul-smelling water began to drizzle from Flint taps, objections poured in. At the large General Motors plant on the border of Flint, the water began corroding engine blocks. When the company grumbled that the new water supply damaged auto parts, they were provided with treated water from Detroit. Sadly, those living in Flint were not offered that option. They were told the water was safe to drink. It was not.

Those Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) employees that spoke against the move were marginalized, ignored, and ridiculed. Within weeks a local parent and physician reported evidence of lead poisoning in young children. They were also dismissed. Only after tests from Virginia Tech University confirmed that the highly corrosive water from the Flint River was leaching lead into tap water was the water supply switched back to Detroit. By then it was too late for thousands.

In fact the poisonous impact of lead has been known for centuries. Scholars believe that the decline of the Roman Empire was in part due to the slow poisoning from toxic lead sugars that sweetened wine, preserved fruit, fed soldiers, and lined their wine vessels and water pipes. One of the oldest medieval woodcuts features skeletons at lead printing presses, denoting the deadly damage of their work.

Lead exposure from paint continues to poison young children at all socio-economic levels. Housing built before 1978 — including the White House where darling 10-year old Baron Trump will soon live — can contain lead paint, which, if disturbed with renovation or simple chipping, can create lead dust. Once it enters the bloodstream and the brain, lead never leaves.

The families of Flint will suffer for the rest of their lives from the thoughtless actions of the misguided custodians who ignored existing laws and compromised public health and safety. The fact that the poisoning of Flint took place under the guise of fiscal control provides a cautionary tale to us all. The cost of preventing more lead poisoning pales compared to the billions required to raise children who will live the rest of their lives with just a little less intelligence, a slightly greater propensity to criminal behavior, hearing difficulties, higher blood pressure, kidney disease, skin diseases, and other subtle afflictions.

Flint is by no means a one-off event. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 12 of the 27 states that carried out any lead testing in 2014 had higher rates of lead poisoning than Flint. More than 11 counties in New Jersey have children with higher lead levels. Since 2008, drastic cuts in funding for public health programs across the board have slashed programs to educate parents and pediatricians to test infants and toddlers for lead poisoning or test water for its residues.

Researchers have repeatedly found that children who are lead poisoned are 7 times more likely to drop out of school and 6 times more likely to become involved in the juvenile justice system. We can point to the tragic story of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Maryland as a prime example. On April 12, 2015, Gray, a 25-year-old Black American man, was arrested by Baltimore Police for allegedly possessing an illegal switchblade. While being transported in a police van, Gray fell into a coma and never woke up. He died on April 19, 2015.

Like thousands in his West Baltimore community, Gray grew up lead poisoned. After a lifetime of failures in school, serious run-ins with the law, and difficulty concentrating, Gray’s family settled a lead poisoning lawsuit against the property owner. The undisclosed amount they received cannot bring their son back to life.

One way we can make America even greater is to target some of the pending multi-billion dollar infrastructure tax credits to projects that clean up those lead-poisoning cauldrons of the inner cities that remain in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Detroit and other zones across this country. A massive training program in lead detection and remediation could quickly employ those currently lacking in opportunities. We also need to continue and promote policies to get lead out of our water, our pipes, food, cosmetics and our homes. Doing so not only spares the brains of our children from a lifetime of permanent damage, but also assures a higher, healthier and fairer quality of our future workforce.  

Devra Davis, Ph.D., MPH, is an award-winning writer and president of Environmental Health Trust. She is a visiting professor of medicine at the Hadassah Medical Center and Ondokuz Mayis University Medical Center.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

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