It is appalling to hear about the situation in Flint, Michigan where lead has been pouring into the drinking cups of children for months. Lead is known to cause serious health problems, including cognitive disorders and learning disabilities. The effects can last, and most exposed children will need special education.
And, if the trend in schools continues, these same students will someday be told they have no excuses when it comes to learning, mastering standards and doing well on high-stakes tests. Of course, their teachers will be blamed if they don’t do well. And what kind of special education will be left for them?
There could also be a correlation between lead and violent crime. It is connected to impulsiveness and other serious reactions. Think about how that can be a concern with teen and adult behavior.
In Baltimore, they examined the house of Freddie Gray, whose death in police captivity last year caused riots in the city. Freddie had difficulty in school from a young age. The house he grew up in was full of peeling lead paint.
This is a catastrophe for children and their families in Flint, a city that has seen its share of difficulties
There’s enough well-deserved loathing out there for Michigan’s governor Rick Snyder, and his involved staff. If they knew about this situation, and failed to act, how will they be held accountable? Will they get to use excuses? With headlines and reports like this one in the Washington Post —“In Flint, Mich., there’s so much lead in children’s blood that a state of emergency is declared”, I can only hope this issue won’t get shuffled under the rug.
This is not to make light of Michigan’s problem, but lead poisoning, when it comes to poverty and its connection to a child’s performance in school, has been around a long time.
It’s just that public school critics pretend it isn’t there, or they imply it isn’t significant.
Michael Martin, once a research analyst for the Arizona State School Boards Association, wrote “A Strange Ignorance: The Role of Lead Poisoning in Failing Schools.” The only reference I could find to that report now is the executive summary by Martin archived on Susan Ohanian’s site. Susan has followed the lead issue for years and has several articles about lead and school performance, including Martin’s.
Martin also kindly reviewed what I wrote about lead effects on children in school in my book Misguided Education Reform. He gave me a blurb.
But what is unsaid about lead poisoning in children is just as important as what is said. When have you heard any critic of public schools mention lead as a problem for the children in those schools?
Has chief school reformer Bill Gates ever said, let’s get at the problem of lead poisoning in children? Has he ever wondered, maybe lead is a key reason children struggle in school? No. Gates focuses instead on teacher effectiveness and Common Core State Standards–et cetera.
What if he had used just a fraction of the money he has spent on all those teacher and school reforms on helping families get the lead out of their homes, or even getting lead out of old schools?
Has school reformer Eli Broad stopped long enough from his support of public school takeovers with unregulated charter schools, and reform training of superintendents and school boards in L.A., and across the country, to broach the lead issue? Not that I know of.
Where are the Waltons of Walmart, or the many other CEOs who condemn public schools and teachers and spend millions on converting public schools to charters in the name of reform?
For the school reformers, lead seems to simply fit into a long list of other poverty issues–asthma, hunger, homelessness, poor living wages for parents, crime, etc. These factors are excuses to the reformers who don’t want to take them into account when students have problems in school.
Poor children, the public is told, don’t need more excuses. They need grit, and teachers need to get tougher and teach like they are champions, or get the right kind of mindset.
I find it ironic that Sally Richman of the Los Angeles Housing and Community Divestment Department said, in reference to a poor area with lead affecting its children in L.A., “If there was more rigorous testing of children in the area, (lead poisoning) scores might go up.” (cited below). She was talking, of course, about lead scores. When have we ever hear the word “rigorous” used with any measurement besides student standardized tests?
Here’s some research—a Detroit study about lead and HERE for Michigan’s uninformed politicians.
Let’s be honest, lead is icky to deal with. It costs money to clean it up.
Thankfully, well-informed reporters and parents, and some in Congress, are increasingly addressing this issue. Below I list the most recent articles found online in 2015. There are plenty of earlier articles about lead too, including the problems Washington D.C. had with lead in their water. Maybe more attention will be paid to the problems of lead poisoning related to school performance.
In the meantime, it shouldn’t take a tragedy like Flint to bring lead poisoning attention.
Also, lead poisoning is not only a problem for poor children. It mostly is, but lead paint can be a problem for any child. See New Orleans below. Parents need to be aware of lead sources and take precautions to avoid lead exposure.
Here are the lead reports from some cities and states.
The Chicago Tribune headline reads “Lead paint poisons poor Chicago kids as city spends millions less on cleanup” by Michael Hawthorne, May 1, 2015.
During his re-election campaign, Mayor Rahm Emanuel cited his father’s involvement in a 1970s campaign to ban lead-based paint as an inspiration to fight for social justice. But under Emanuel the city is spending considerably less to fight lead poisoning than it once did.
Last year the city set aside about $4 million for anti-lead programs, down from nearly $8 million as recently as 2010, according to city records. Chicago now spends more each year on software licensing ($6.5 million) and expense accounts for aldermen ($4.8 million) than it does combating lead.
In 2011, President Barack Obama’s administration moved to merge lead poisoning and asthma-prevention programs at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention while proposing to cut the combined budget in half. Congress went further, slashing CDC funding for lead-poisoning prevention by 94 percent, leaving $2 million to be shared nationwide.
New York City
From the Daily News “EXCLUSIVE: Brooklyn tot has high levels of toxic lead while NYCHA denies paint is a problem.” By Greg B. Smith, April 13, 2015.
“Even scientists think that exposure to lead in children was a thing of the past. It isn’t,” said Dr. Tomas Guilarte, environmental health science chairman at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.
“It continues to be a very significant issue here in the United States because those homes, people continued to live in them. It is a problem of today. It is a problem of the future.”
NYCHA [New York City Housing Authority] in particular has a persistent problem with old housing stock: 80% of its 178,000 apartments are in buildings that are more than 40 years old, and thus likely to contain lead paint.
The toxin is often painted over, sometimes multiple times. But in areas near windows, and on radiators and doorframes that are subject to friction or temperature changes, the paint tends to chip.
“Baltimore’s Toxic Legacy Of Lead Paint” By Anna Maria Barry-Jester, FiveThirtyEight. May 7, 2015.
State tests found more than 65,000 children in the city with dangerously high blood-lead levels from 1993 to 2013.
“Lead levels in Baltimore children” The Washington Post, April 30, 2015.
“State fails to meet guidelines on lead in homes” By David Abel, The Boston Globe. July 15, 2015.
Last year, nearly 5,000 children in Massachusetts tested positive for what the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers to be elevated lead levels, according to the state Department of Public Health.
“It’s just astounding that we continue to not follow these recommendations, which were very, very clear,” said Wendy Heiger-Bernays, an associate professor of environmental health at the Boston University School of Public Health. “There’s no excuse.”
State officials declined to respond to questions about why the state hasn’t changed its rules.
“Health Department warns of lead poisoning risks in older homes” by Eryn Taylor and Shay Arthur, WREG TV. Memphis was lucky to get a federal grant for $3.7 million to address the lead problem.
“We have a lot of lead poisoned children,” said Betsy Shockley with the Shelby County Health Department.
“We’ve shown for a long time we have a lot of poor housing stock and poverty, and unfortunately when you put those two things together, you get hundreds of lead poisoned children a year.”
Dust from the lead paint can fall on the floor which is a danger to children.
“The children play on the floor, they put their hands in their mouth and ingest lead dust and become lead poisoned,” explained Shockley.
The lead paint can cause brain damage.
“We are above the national average for lead poisoning. We’re screening about 18,000 children in Shelby County a year.”
“The Health Department uses interactive displays so that families can see where lead is in their home, often in places they might not have thought about.
“From Venetian mini blinds to pewter to toys,” said Shockley.
Last month, the City of Memphis announced they received a $3.7 million grant to help rid homes built before 1978 of lead. They already helped Janice Taylor, who runs a daycare, get rid of lead at her business.
Lead isn’t just a concern for the poor.
“The Toxic Legacy of Lead Paint,” by Thomoas Bellerjune, The New York Times. Opinion. June 13, 2015
It is the convention to use an electric sander before painting exteriors of old houses in New Orleans. Some of the old paint contains lead. If that dust gets on the hands of infants, and their hands reach their mouths, it can adversely affect their brain development.
Remarkably, this seems to trouble almost no one, except for two groups of people: the scientists who for years have tried to raise awareness of the menace, and the parents of children with elevated levels of lead in their blood.
“Toxic Neglect: Curing Cleveland’s legacy of lead poisoning” by By Rachel Dissell, Brie Zeltner, The Plain Dealer, October 20, 2015.
In the past five years, lead poisoning has set at least 10,000 Cleveland area children on a potential path to failure before they’ve even finished kindergarten. It’s a path that experts say helps to perpetuate two of Cleveland’s most pressing and bedeviling problems: poor school performance and violence.
“Why Does Lead Poisoning Still Afflict Tens of Thousands of Kids in NJ?” Todd B. Bates, NJ Spotlight. December 1, 2015.
Elevated levels of highly toxic lead have been found in more than 3,100 young children in New Jersey so far this year, according to preliminary data.
The number is on pace to rival last year’s total: 3,599 children under six years old with high lead levels. All told, about 225,000 young kids in New Jersey have been afflicted by lead since 2000.
“It’s amazing to me that no one’s doing anything about it in New Jersey,” said Elyse Pivnick, environmental health director at Isles Inc., a nonprofit community development and environmental organization based in Trenton.
If more than 3,000 kids “came down with a rare virus that was going to affect the rest of their life in New Jersey or in the nation, we would be talking about it,” Pivnick said. “We would be looking for some solution and we’re not and it’s wrong.”
Historically, most of the state’s lead-poisoned children are in poor, minority families living in old urban areas, including Newark, Paterson, Jersey City, and Trenton.
“LA health workers fight lead poisoning in ‘Promise Zone.’” Josie Huang June 29 2015. 89.3 KPPC. Southern California Public Radio.
Los Angeles health officials are ramping up education and testing for lead poisoning in the city’s poorest neighborhoods, even though lead has been banned from paint since 1978.
They say lead exposure is still a major threat to children who live in old, dilapidated buildings in parts of Hollywood, East Hollywood, Koreatown, Pico Union and Westlake, the communities targeted in the latest effort.
Together, the areas make up L.A.’s Promise Zone, one of 13 impoverished areas around the country chosen by the Obama administration to get preferential treatment from federal agencies to address issues like public health.
“If there was more rigorous testing of children in the area, (lead poisoning) scores might go up…”
“Contaminated Soil Lingers Where Apples Once Grew.” by Tony Schick and Courtney Flatt EarthFix Oct. 12, 2015
At homes and day care centers throughout Central Washington, children play in yards contaminated with lead and arsenic.
The state’s Department of Ecology knows about this, and has for decades.
But many parents and caregivers still do not, despite the risks these chemicals pose specifically to children.
I’m sure I could have found more 2015 articles about lead. But this is enough, I think, to get the point across.
“What if he [Gates] had used just a fraction of the money he has spent on all those teacher and school reforms on helping families get the lead out of their homes, or even getting lead out of old schools?”
Wonderful article and something we should be focused a lot more on. And I take your point on Gates, but I guess I have to disagree. Just get Gates out of education, healthcare, everything. He makes a mess of everything he touches – reverse Midas touch. It would certainly be nice to have his kind of money pouring into lead poisoning research, clean-up, remediation, special education, etc., but not from him, unless he can somehow be divorced from any control of such money.
Remember Steve Fossett – that crazy rich guy that was always trying to fly “solo” around the world in a balloon (nevermind his ground crew of dozens) until he disappeared without a trace? I used to think he was the biggest jerk – why couldn’t he find a good cause to focus all that extra time and money on? But now, having seen the hash that Gates, Zuckerberg, etc. have made of their “good causes”, I wish we could interest them in around the world solo ballooning. Maybe we’d have the good fortune that they too would disappear.
But anyway, again, good article. I think lead poisoning is a much bigger problem, especially among the poor, than most people realize (or care to realize). Thanks for writing.
Nancy Bailey says
Thanks for your comment, Dienne. I’d forgotten about Steve Fossett! I hear what you are saying about philanthropy. I guess I think it is appropriate for the wealthy to give back. The problem as I see it is that this involves the public’s public schools, and the reforms are often being made without public input. And they are not good changes. Misguided and a waste of money and a loss for the students as you note.