Lead is not only a heavy metal—it's a heavy burden on human health and the environment. In a sense, the problem is one of our own making. The metal exists in the earth's crust in relatively small amounts, but we've been mining it from below the surface and releasing this toxic chemical into our environment for five millennia.
The dangers posed by lead have been recognized since the second century B.C. But in recent years, science has shown us that even low-level lead exposure can cause neurological and cardiovascular disease, infertility, and decreased kidney function. In young children especially, traces of the metal have been linked to learning and behavioral problems, lower IQ, and other health issues that can last a lifetime.
You can be exposed to dangerous levels of lead by inhaling lead-containing dust or particulates in the air or by ingesting lead-contaminated soil, paint, food products, and water. Lead pollution in the air has decreased drastically in recent decades, after NRDC and others pushed for its removal from gasoline and industrial emissions. Levels in the average American's bloodstream have dropped by more than 75 percent since the 1970s. But remnants of that past pollution remain in the soil, as well as on the walls and in the pipes of older homes and public facilities. It's a problem that's possible—but often expensive—to clean up.
"Unfortunately, while there's good news on average, what you see now are real, very profound disparities in who's impacted by lead," says Miriam Rotkin-Ellman, a senior scientist with the Health program at NRDC. We've dramatically lowered the amount of lead being pumped into our environment as a whole, but low-income communities make up a substantial slice of the four million American families facing the risk of lead poisoning every day. Their homes are more likely to have lead paint, have a yard with contaminated soil, or be situated near polluting facilities. (The United States' last primary lead smelter, operated by the Doe Run company in the St. Louis suburb of Herculaneum, Missouri, closed in 2013. But secondary smelters—generally battery recyclers—still threaten communities in 11 states.)
Health experts agree that any level of lead in one's blood, no matter how small, is cause for concern. Rotkin-Ellman says this is why NRDC works with communities nationwide to target big polluters and strengthen government regulations. NRDC provided technical and legal support that helped lead to the 2015 shuttering of the Exide corporation's highly polluting battery-recycling plant south of downtown Los Angeles. Since then, NRDC has been working with local groups to make soil testing available and to compel state regulators to quickly clean up contaminated soil surrounding 10,000 homes.
"Any time lead contamination surfaces, there's a lot of finger-pointing and not a lot of responsibility taking," says Rotkin-Ellman. In urban areas especially, it can often be difficult to pinpoint the biggest culprit. However, basic cleanup measures—careful maintenance of lead-painted surfaces, removal of contaminated soil or installation of protective barriers, replacement of lead pipes—can make a huge difference in children's health. Unfortunately, industrial facilities and small aircraft that use leaded gasoline continue to emit lead into the air.
To make things more difficult, federal funding for detecting and removing lead has been slashed in recent years. Local governments are struggling—and in many cases unable—to make up the difference. To many economists and health experts, these cuts make little sense. For every generation with a significant proportion of young children who are exposed to high levels of lead, the estimated price tag from decreased income, lost tax revenue, and increased health care and education expenses can run into tens of billions of dollars a year. In contrast, every dollar spent on lead remediation saves an estimated $17 to $221 over the long term.
If you live in a high-risk area or in a home that was built before 1978, you and your family may be exposed to lead. Though lead paint testing kits can be purchased at home-repair stores, they aren't as reliable as other alternatives. An accredited soil and paint testing center or a certified renovation and lead dust sampling specialist will give you true peace of mind.