As a student of public health, one of the facts that sticks in my mind is that the Australian Parliament banned the continued use of lead as a base in paints at the beginning of the 20th century. Why you might ask, do I think this is an important fact to remember?
Well, during a recent review of the scientific literature that lists all the published work on medical and scientific research and writings, I found that the only developed nation that continues to struggle with the problem of childhood lead poisoning and its consequences is the United States, and Oneida County has the highest rates in the State of NY.
When you refer to the research coming out of countries including China, Russia, African nations, and the Arab States, you see that, as well as in the United States, the health of children is being compromised by exposure to lead.
Unlike all other countries which continue to have significant numbers of children whose lives are undermined by the exposure to lead, American government officials have been keenly aware of the problem decades before they became willing to ban the use of lead in residential paints and to phase out its use as an additive in gasoline. By then, not only was the housing stock built before 1978 covered with lead paint, the heavy metal, lead, was also incorporated in the dirt in our parks and backyards, particularly along busy city streets and roadways from car and truck exhaust that spewed lead into the atmosphere.
The effects of lead poisoning include developmental delay, Learning difficulties, Irritability, Loss of appetite, Weight loss, Sluggishness and fatigue, Abdominal pain, Vomiting, Constipation, Hearing loss, Seizures…and if not remedied, last a lifetime.
Efforts to remedy the problem have been limited by governments’ tendency to protect corporations responsible for its development and perpetuation. Lobbyists for the chemical and petroleum industries behaved the way their colleagues in the tobacco industry did and were punished for doing, that is, falsifying the record and knowingly marketing products which undermined the nation’s health. This has been at an enormous cost not only to state and federal governments but individuals as well.
Unlike the tobacco industry, however, the chemical and petroleum industries and the real estate sector have never been held entirely accountable for their contamination of the environment and the effects this contamination continues to have on poor populations.
Once we thought the long-term effect of childhood lead poisoning lead to the difference between finishing high school and graduating college. Now, we know the implications are even more profound because more than 25% of the nation’s prisoners have been exposed to lead as children. It seems to me that the nation’s poor, whatever their errors and sins may be, are also forced to bear the burden and pay the price for a long list of policy errors and decisions that advanced the interests of the powerful over those of the weak.
The heavy metal, lead, was banned from incorporation in paints in 1978. Here we are, 40 years later, about 5% of the children under the age of 6 tested have lead in their blood, unacceptably high levels of lead.
Philip Landrigan, a renowned pediatric toxicologist who specializes in lead poisoning in children estimated that in 2001 the children in Oneida County, all 2508 of them, who were suffering from lead poisoning would lose $28,000,000 (2001 dollars) in earnings over the course of their lives. That sum does not include many other costs to society, such as the cost of imprisonment from aggressive actions caused by previous exposure to lead, or the costs of medical treatment resulting from accidents resulting from poor impulse control associated with exposure to lead. There is no way to estimate the costs to the victims and their families of the misery, heartache, and frustration that result from their accidental exposure to lead.
It is time, however, to treat the county’s housing stock constructed before 1978 that still contains lead paint and lead pipes as a Superfund site, because it appears that whatever methods which have been previously employed have not or are not working.
The county should float a bond purchased by concerned citizens and industry that would guarantee that in 5 years no children in the county will suffer from being exposed to lead while playing in their own homes.