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How to Stop Poisoning Children

The U.S. government long knew about lead poisoning in a public housing complex in Indiana and it did nothing—an all-too-familiar combination of federal apathy and structural racism.

Children play at the West Calumet Housing Complex, which has been found to contain high levels of lead and arsenic.
Joshua Lott/Getty Images
Nayesa Walker watches as her son plays on a tricycle at the West Calumet Housing Complex in East Chicago, Indiana, in 2016. The soil at the complex has been found to contain high levels of lead and arsenic.

Residents of the West Calumet Housing Complex in East Chicago, Indiana, have been poisoned for decades. The federal government built the public housing complex in 1972 on land that had formerly housed a lead smelting plant. Then it let scores of children grow up around an element linked to cognitive disability, developmental disorders, and more.

On Wednesday, The Washington Post broke the latest news in West Calumet’s ongoing lead exposure crisis. The Posts report did not focus on the source of the lead poisoning or on the effects of the exposure but rather on a report from the inspector general for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which found that HUD knew about the lead poisoning in the community’s children for over two decades before taking appropriate regulatory action.

In 1998, the Department of Health and Human Services, or HHS, found that 30 percent of the children tested at West Calumet had excessive amounts of lead in their blood. Even after lead-filled soil was removed, children were still testing at rates well above the national average in 2016, indicating that the lead had seeped into their water source. The following year, HUD finally conducted a proper environmental review of the site. The complex has since been destroyed, with the Post reporting that its 1,100 majority Black and Hispanic residents were relocated after living with the exposure for over four decades. (In response to the inspector general’s scathing 44-page memo, HUD said that it will “continue its work with EPA to improve information sharing and to jointly evaluate the proximity of other HUD-assisted housing to contaminated sites.”)

On its own merits, the West Calumet story is a horrific one. The federal government failed in its duty to protect those in federal housing. Countless children, many of whom are now adults, were made to suffer as a result. But the case—like the Flint water crisis in which untended lead-lined pipes endangered countless community members—also highlights a broader issue: People are going to keep getting poisoned until the nation fully addresses its lead-infused infrastructure. To do that, the public needs to know where the problem areas are. And it doesn’t take long looking into that question to realize that while West Calumet may have been a particularly egregious case, the lead crisis in the U.S. is fundamentally a government transparency crisis.

France, Belgium, and Austria listened to initial studies showing the damage lead does to children and banned leaded paint in 1909. In America, lead wasn’t banned from household paint for another half-century, in 1978. Only then did the U.S. begin to phase out the use of lead in gasoline, plumbing infrastructure, and paints.

Today, many people still think of lead poisoning as being something that results from improper house inspections and babies chewing on walls. In reality, the problem is both larger and more targeted.

Lead paint is still a concern, for sure—largely due to patchy regulatory attention. In environmental non-profit Earth Justice’s Better Lead Policy’s guide published last August, the authors called for cities, counties, and states to undertake proactive rental inspection programs, such as those enacted by Rochester, New York, and Cleveland, Ohio. It also called for local regulatory agencies to oversee renovation and construction projects to ensure that both old and new structures are outfitted with lead-free paint.

Beyond updating paint coats, though, state and local governments need to replace lead-lined pipes that carry drinking water. There’s also a dire need to outlaw or at least drastically limit the production and use of lead bullets, which dominate the ammunition market for their cheapness. As opposed to copper bullets, which remain almost entirely intact, roughly a quarter of a lead bullet scatters into tiny pieces upon impact. This most directly affects wildlife such as eagles and condors who digest animal remains, but it’s also a pressing issue for those living near high-usage facilities like gun ranges and military bases. (If any of this interests you, I cannot recommend this illuminating report from Undark highly enough.)

Lead poisoning from paint, water, or bullets isn’t particularly mysterious. To tackle the problem, state, tribal, and federal governments simply need to admit the problem exists and dedicate funds to replacing the existing paint coats and pipes. The politics of that would be frustrating but not insurmountable. The bigger problem is that the lead crisis is exacerbated by lack of data.

As Vox pointed out four years ago and as is still true today, testing for lead is not legally required in the American healthcare system. While children of Medicaid beneficiaries are required to be tested, Reuters found in a 2016 investigation that just 41 percent of toddler Medicaid enrollees had actually been tested, with a high concentration of communities in the South and the West falling behind in their testing rates. Then, in 2017, the Public Health Institute’s California Environmental Health Tracking Program published a report in Pediatrics that found the actual number of children with elevated lead levels between 1999 and 2010 was double the number reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Chronic under-testing bleeds into transparency issues. After the Reuters investigation showed that a large number of the disproportionate exposure rates were turning up in New Mexico, New Mexico Political Report’s Laura Paskus began digging through the issue. She was greeted by a brick wall. At the time, the state’s governor, Susana Martinez, had instilled an anti-press culture within New Mexico’s state agencies, making it difficult for Paskus to find a state regulator or medical expert that could speak with her openly about the state’s testing procedures in the areas with higher-than-average lead poisoning rates. Paskus’s resulting piece criticized the administration’s stonewalling and its determination to slow down public records requests more broadly. (Current New Mexico Governor Lujan Grisham’s administration has proven more open to media requests on this subject.)

Paskus probed the Reuters data to find that many of these high exposure rates occurred in areas with high Native populations, from Navajo Nation to pueblos, as well as communities with high Hispanic populations. Not only were these communities not receiving the necessary updates to their homes and water systems, but many were barely being tested at all. And testing is something of a delayed response to begin with: As a report on lead testing in Galveston, Texas, concluded, “screening only indicates elevated lead levels after exposure and when generally irreversible damage has already occurred.” That both more frequent lead exposure and patchy lead testing disproportionately affect non-white and non-wealthy communities is as infuriating as it is expected, given that the state and federal governments have been hesitant to invest infrastructure funds in rural or low-income communities. This pattern also holds for tribal nations, many of whom have been proactive in the absence of federal assistance on lead poisoning.

The good news is that the U.S. is beginning to open its eyes, if only slightly. Last July, the EPA set aside $4.3 million for updating water infrastructure in Indian Country to test for lead levels in water sources serving tribal schools and childcare facilities; this followed a nationwide $40 million fund announced in February 2020 and an overdue update to the Lead and Copper Rule that lowered the amount of lead allowed in plumbing materials from 8 percent to 0.25 percent.

As with the local efforts in New York and Ohio, the federal government is inching toward a regulatory process and proactive testing protocol that will eventually help to stamp out the lead exposure crisis. But as the U.S. proceeds, it will be crucial to ensure that no area—be it bullets, data, or accountability—is overlooked. Government actors that block efforts to provide the public a full, transparent account of whether their children are being poisoned deserve to be criminally charged just as Governor Rick Snyder has now been for his role in the Flint water crisis. The U.S. was already 50 years late to simply acknowledging the issue. Public officials should understand by now that being silent or incurious about lead poisoning is being complicit.