Lead Toxicity Is a Nationwide Crisis

Credit: Jamie Hooper/Fotolia

It deserves — and demands — a nationwide response.

Ask any parent, and they’ll tell you without hesitation that their most important responsibility is keeping their kids safe and healthy. As the mother of a young daughter myself, I’ll vouch that this is certainly true for me. And it’s equally true for every other mom and dad that I know.

For nearly two years now, I’ve been trying to imagine what the parents in Flint, Michigan, must have felt like when they first realized that they had been accidentally poisoning their own children — simply by letting them drink water that came out of the taps of their homes. It’s unfathomable.

Millions of parents read about what happened in Flint and said to themselves, “That’s so horrible — I’m glad nothing like that could ever happen in my city.” Except we now know that it can happen in their city. In theirs, in yours, in mine.

On the one hand, we should be grateful that this week has been officially designated as National Lead Poisoning Prevention Week. Any opportunity to educate people about the continued threat to public health — and especially children’s health — posed by the presence of toxic lead in our air, water, soil, homes, and consumer products should be welcomed. On the other hand, there are still millions of people in this country who are dealing with lead all 52 weeks out of the year. And once this particular week comes to an end, we need to keep fighting for them.

More than two years after the story broke, we’re still seeing dispiriting headlines about the situation in Flint, where as many as 12,000 children have been exposed to lead in contaminated drinking water. Flint is still a long way from being fixed. But equally important is that Flint, as we’ve come to learn, isn’t an isolated case: Barely a week goes by these days when we don’t hear reports that dangerously high levels of lead have been discovered in some new locale, from Buffalo to Newark to Tallahassee to Chicago to Los Angeles to Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

No one is debating whether lead is grievously harmful to the health of children and teens; this science was established more than a century ago. While lead can be harmful to anyone — at any age — young people are most vulnerable to its effects on cognitive and emotional development. And there is no “safe” level of exposure.

In young children, lead harms the developing brain, leading to increased risk of learning disabilities, loss of IQ points, and behavioral problems. Studies suggest that these challenges can have lifelong consequences, including higher school dropout rates, reduced income, and increased likelihood of incarceration.

To the extent there’s any debate surrounding lead, that debate is over how to respond to what is, clearly, a nationwide public health problem of the utmost urgency. That’s why NRDC has joined with Earthjustice and dozens of other organizations to demand that lead be made a top priority of President Obama’s Task Force on Environmental Health and Safety Risks to Children. In our call to action, we urge the administration to take a comprehensive approach to solving this problem by marshaling the energies of the many different agencies that have a legal responsibility for tackling it.

One of the most frustrating things about our current epidemic of lead exposure is that it’s entirely preventable. And on top of that, we fully understand how to prevent it. But doing so will require that a number of federal agencies acknowledge their respective roles in the effort and begin to act in concert. For starters:

  • The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency must reevaluate its standards for lead in our drinking water, air, house paint, soil, and dust, making these standards tougher and enforcing them more vigorously. It must also prioritize lead as a chemical of concern, meriting the highest level of attention and action, under the soon-to-be-updated Toxic Substances Control Act.
  • The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) must take a more proactive approach in identifying and remediating lead hazards in people’s homes before children are affected.
  • The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) must move to ban all lead in children’s and household products and must take full advantage of its recall authority to remove these products from the marketplace and from homes.
  • The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) must withdraw approval for any cosmetics and food products containing lead that are currently sold in the United States.
  • The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) must adopt stronger standards that will reduce or prevent lead exposure among workers, including pregnant women.
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention must ratchet down its definition of an “elevated” blood lead level in order to reflect what science has confirmed: that there is no safe level of lead exposure.

While federal agencies are working to rethink their concerted response to this crisis, organizations like mine will continue to fight the critical legal and public-information battles that have helped communities win their right to drink lead-free water, breathe lead-free air, and play on lead-free soil. We’ll continue, for instance, to advocate for the residents of Flint by going to court to ensure that they have clean, safe water to drink while their city and state work to remove the lead from their water supply. We’ll continue to study the map where lead toxicity has been discovered, and to share our findings.

And you can rest assured that we’ll be doing this work every week of the year, until we reach our goal: making sure that kids get to grow up lead-free.

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