While the situation in Flint Michigan is tragic, it is simply the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the lead poisoning of our children. It is estimated that as a result of failing to use an anti-corrosive in the water being pumped out of the Flint river, as many as 8,000 children were exposed to toxic levels of lead. This has made the national news for several months now and prompted cries for the resignation of numerous state officials including the Governor. The sad fact, however, is that in Massachusetts 7,000 children test positive for lead every year. In 2014, the last year for which we have published statistics, 6,972 children under the age of six tested positive for lead. And Massachusetts is not unique. The stats are the same throughout the United States. In fact it is estimated that there are 500,000 new cases of lead exposure in the United States every year! The primary culprit is not contaminated water but rather simple house dust contaminated with lead.
While lead paint was banned from use in 1978, more than 1.0 million homes in Massachusetts (and 24 million homes nationwide) still contain lead paint. The problem now is that with age, this paint is deteriorating and turning into dust which mixes with common house dust and is easily inhaled. This dust circulates through the home’s HVAC system and coats the surfaces of every object a child comes in contact with.
The effect of exposure to lead paint at any level is toxic and it is irreversible. Exposure to lead paint during a child’s formative years will result in impaired cognitive development, learning disabilities, lowered IQ, ADHD, Autism, and anti-social and violent behavior. Often times these problems are not initially attributed to lead exposure. It is only after the child or the house tests positive for lead that doctors realize that the child’s symptoms could have been prevented if only the source of the lead had been eliminated.
Not only is the cost to society of childhood lead exposure enormous as these children who have been exposed to lead at a young age grow up suffering from significantly increased levels of depression, anti-social behavior incarceration, underemployment and unemployment, but as with most societal harms, it falls disproportionately on those in the lower socioeconomic rungs of society. With the cost of de-leading a home often exceeding $10,000 many poorer parents simply do not have the means to pay to have their home professionally deleaded and while there are strict rules requiring landlords to delead their properties if they rent to families with young children, the unfortunate truth is that many landlords simply ignore these laws and many tenants simply do not know enough to insist and frankly do not fully understand the risk that they are taking with their children’s wellbeing.
If there were any other problem that was having such a profound effect on fully 500,000 of our most vulnerable citizens every single year, year after year, the nation would be up in arms demanding that government find a solution. The insidious nature of lead poisoning, however, allows this problem to go most mostly unnoticed. There are no outward signs of lead exposure and the symptoms are often misdiagnosed. Yet the effects are devastating and lifelong. It is only when there is a tragedy on the scale of the crisis in Flint Michigan that people begin talking about the effects of childhood exposure to lead. It is our hope that the tragedy in Flint will act as a wake-up call to our state houses and legislatures to enact legislation aimed at eliminating the problem of exposing our children to lead dust created by disintegrating lead paint in our and apartments built prior to 1978.