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Can Flint crisis spotlight need for action on lead nationwide?

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The crisis in Flint, Mich., is only one example of how poor neighborhoods nationwide are dealing with the effects from lead exposure.

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    Lanice Walker fixes the hair of her daughter Mahoghny. Despite the fact that her three youngest children, including Mahoghny, had elevated blood levels from living in a contaminated apartment in Chicago, it was two years before the city's Housing Authority allowed her to move.
    Richard Mertens
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As cases of donated water pour into Flint, Mich., whose residents still don't know when it will be safe to drink from the taps, one fact is becoming increasingly apparent: The poisonous problem of lead stretches beyond the borders of the Mitten State.

On Wednesday, environmental and civil rights groups filed a lawsuit demanding a full replacement of all the lead pipes in the city. The same day, officials announced that about 200 Flint children have shown elevated blood-lead levels since the crisis came to light in the fall.

The renewed attention on lead poisoning has led health experts and environment advocates to revive awareness of the substance’s abiding presence in landscapes across the country – and its consequences for vulnerable populations. In Flint, the culprit was corrosive water that caused lead to leach out of old pipes, but lead in house paint and in the soil in other US cities continue to pose a risk to young children. And those neighborhood concentrations of lead are almost invariably found in poor, urban areas, the experts say.

Recommended: Flint crisis: a cautionary tale about America’s water supply (+video)

“The US has done a tremendous job in getting lead out of gasoline and in cleaning up cities,” says Robert Bullard, an environmental sociologist and dean of the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University in Houston. “For the most part, the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] has declared victory on lead.

“But there’s a residual that still remains, and most of that residual is in urban, inner-city areas,” he continues. “And the children that are most disproportionately impacted still tend to be poor children, children in the inner city, [and] a high percentage of children of color.”

The consequences can be dire. According to the CDC, even tiny doses of lead “have been shown to affect IQ, ability to pay attention, and academic achievement.” Aggression, antisocial behavior, and other disorders have also been tied to lead exposure, the agency notes.

Because of the government’s success in eliminating most new sources of lead over the years, many younger people are not aware of the health risks associated with the substance.

“If you don’t know their behavior was caused by lead poisoning, you just figure they were bad kids,” says Marcella Rankins, a community activist in Englewood, a low-income neighborhood in Chicago’s South Side. “But maybe they are acting out because they were living in a home that is poisoning them.”

'A very strong pattern'

Brenda Anderson was one of those who had no idea about the lead risks for young children. After moving into a house in Englewood about two decades ago, she discovered that lead poisoning may have caused problems for two of her six children.

“Reading, counting – they couldn’t concentrate like a normal kid can,” she says.

In 1978, the US government banned lead in house paints, children’s toys, and dishes and cookware. And in 1996, the Environmental Protection Agency took the final steps of a 25-year effort to phase out lead in gasoline.

But houses built before the ban still contain lead-based paint. Of about 24 million housing units that have deteriorated leaded paint and high levels of lead-contaminated house dust, more than 4 million house young children, according to the CDC.

And because deterioration is the issue – paint chips flaking off walls, for instance, or leaded dust contaminating the air – the problem persists, experts say. And some of the dust and paint makes its way into the soil, turning it into a source of concern for young children playing outside.

Those lingering sources pose severe health risks to children, says Howard Mielke, a professor at the Tulane University School of Medicine in New Orleans, whose research includes mapping blood-lead levels across urban populations.

In Chicago, children ages 5 and younger who live in impoverished and mostly African-American neighborhoods are harmed by lead at rates up to six times the city average, according to a Chicago Tribune investigation published in May.

Neighborhoods in Los Angeles, Detroit, and Boston also have among the highest concentrations of lead in the soil in the country, a 2011 study by Dr. Mielke and others found.

And of the 10 counties in the United States where the highest number of children tested positive for elevated blood-lead levels, the top five had anywhere between 18 and 35 percent of their populations living below the poverty line.

“It’s a very strong pattern,” Mielke says. “Lead-based paint was used all over the country, [but] the interior of cities have the most.”

Today, Ms. Anderson still watches carefully over her grown children. She says she can't let her son, who is now in his 20s, go out alone.

“I have to keep my eye on him,” she says. “If he goes out and gets lost, I have to go find him.”

Environmental justice

Communities in poor urban areas tend to have to struggle for their leaders’ attention, says Dr. Bullard of Southern Texas University.

Indeed, part of the nationwide outrage over Flint – an old industrial town whose population and economy declined after General Motors closed or moved plants in the 1980s and '90s – stems from the fact that residents had been complaining about the quality of their tap water for well over a year before leaders took action. The problems began in April 2014, when the city switched its water supply from Detroit to the Flint River, but the governor only began responding in October 2015.

“Their complaints have gone back a year and a half ... [but] people’s concerns were discounted or dismissed,” says Paul Mohai, an environmental policy professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment in Ann Arbor. “As far as I can see, they did not appear to have been taken very seriously, and it really seemed to take quite a while for the government to pay attention and respond.”

Advocates noted that about 40 percent of Flint’s roughly 99,000 residents live below the poverty line, and nearly two thirds of the population is black. They accused GOP Gov. Rick Snyder and other officials of environmental racism, or intentionally placing low-income and minority communities in toxic or degraded environments.

Governor Snyder denied the allegations, telling MSNBC: “Flint is a place I've been devoted to helping. I've made a focused effort since before I started in office to say we need to work hard to help people that have the greatest need.”

Still, Flint’s “demographics suggest a community that doesn’t have a lot of resources, that doesn’t have a lot of political clout,” Dr. Mohai says. “Those are the characteristics of other environmental justice cases.”

Lanice Walker lacked both clout and resources, as well – which is part of the reason the single mother of nine was forced to live in a lead-contaminated home on Chicago’s West Side for two years.

In 2012, Ms. Walker used a voucher she received from the city’s public housing authority to rent a four-bedroom house in a poor, mostly African-American neighborhood. Five months into the move, a routine checkup determined that one of her younger children had elevated blood-lead levels. She soon learned that all her children had small amounts of lead in their blood.

"I was devastated," she says.

The CDC has said that no amount of lead in the blood is considered safe for kids. It considers more than 5 micrograms per deciliter as potentially harmful. Walker's three youngest children tested above that level.

But the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, which funds the voucher program that Walker relied on, deems up to 20 micrograms per deciliter safe for public housing tenants – above what even her youngest children registered. She was denied permission to move.

Only when a public advocacy group finally intervened was Walker able to relocate into a freshly renovated, lead-free apartment about a mile away.

The effects of lead poisoning, however, are not so easily left behind. Her son Ervin, 9, was slow to learn and easily frustrated. Eight-year-old Mahoghny, a lively third-grader, still cannot read, and is just now learning to scrawl her name. Both receive extra help at school, but Walker would like to send them to a school that specializes in aiding children with learning disabilities.

About 5:30 in the evening, the downstairs door flies open and two children pound up the steps. Mahoghny and Ervin are home from their after school program. Mahoghny had a good day in school, learning about the planets. She digs into her pocket and pulls out a crumpled one-dollar bill. A teacher gave it to her for completing an assignment.

Walker cuddles her youngest, Emaurie, now 4, on her lap. “She’s hyperactive,” her mother says, explaining Emaurie had the highest exposure levels. “She can’t sit down. But her learning process is great. I thank God for that.”

Flint as a ‘tipping point’

Back in Flint, Snyder has been reluctant to order the full replacement of lead pipes in the city, calling for further examination of the estimated $55 million needed to repair about 15,000 pipes, Fox News reports.

But in the face of a growing national scandal, Snyder on Wednesday appointed a group of government officials and health and other experts to implement long-term fixes for Flint's lead-contaminated water system. Snyder also said he wanted the Medicaid program to be expanded to cover all Flint children. In an interview on CNN Wednesday night, he added that officials expect to find more children affected by the exposure.

“There could be many more,” Snyder said.

Advocates hope the events in Flint will help drive more awareness about both the risks of lead exposure, and environmental injustice as a whole.

Flint could be “the tipping point where people are saying, ‘No more,’ ” says Bullard. “We should be taking precautions, especially toward our most vulnerable populations.”

The best result, some say, would be a broader push for preventive approaches, especially in poorer communities.

“We have this problem where we wait for children to be exposed to lead, then we try to fix it,” says Martha Glynn, a nurse-practitioner at a public health clinic in Chicago and Walker’s primary-care provider.

“But we do not fix the problem at the beginning,” she says, noting that of about 50 children she saw for school physicals last fall, five or six showed high levels of lead.

The Chicago Housing Authority says it wants to lower its lead level standards to match the standards of the Chicago department of public health, which are half the HUD standards for children 1 to 6. "We really think HUD should take a look at this," says Katy Ludwig, the CHA official in charge of the housing voucher program. "It should really be the same across the country." Also, CHA is working with local advocates on how to improve inspections, which are required before a family in the voucher program moves into new housing, to prevent lead poisoning before it happens.

In some ways, the crisis in Flint has already had a ripple effect. In Sebring, Ohio, for instance, local officials quickly issued an advisory for children and pregnant women to avoid drinking tap water after a possible lead-contamination issue emerged last week. The state EPA is investigating whether Sebring officials’ actions led to any mismanagement.

“It may be a little early to tell, but it seems that Flint might be the straw that broke the camel’s back, a turning point in terms of raising people’s awareness about the environmental contaminants that potentially could affect us all,” says Mohai. “I’m hoping that [the Flint crisis] will motivate all of us to begin to look at these other communities that have high levels of pollution and take their concerns seriously.”

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