As news of criminal charges against the architects of the poisoning of Flint’s water system broke on Tuesday, a new report shows that almost 3, 000 communities across the U.S. have lead poisoning rates higher than the beleaguered Michigan city, reflecting the devastating impacts of 40 years of neo-liberal neglect.
The Reuters report, called Off The Charts, found 3,000 areas “with recently recorded lead poisoning rates at least double those in Flint during the peak of that city’s contamination crisis,” with public health records in a third of those communities showing rates at least four times higher.
While the Flint crisis was created by the criminal decision of a Republican appointed city manager to switch that city’s water source to one known to pose a threat to public safety, the lead poisoning crisis in these other cities appears to be the result of a bipartisan toxic neoliberal mix of neglected public infrastructure, lack of enforcement of building regulations, and decreased funding for public health agencies.
The report shows that despite initially promising attempts in the late 1970’s to not only ban lead-based paints, but clean up housing, plumbing, and playgrounds that used them, funding for those infrastructure programs soon dried up, leaving thousands of children vulnerable to the highly toxic substance.
The report suggests the problem is particularly dire in the impoverished de-industrialized heartland of the midwest, where racialized poverty remains a key indicator of which communities are at higher risk.
For example, in one east Cleveland, Ohio neighborhood, where almost 50 percent of the residents live in poverty, “nearly half of kids tested in the last decade had elevated lead levels.” Similarly, in 49 different communities in Pennsylvania, the former steel capital of the U.S., “at least 40 percent of children tested had high lead levels.”
The effects of elevated lead levels are particularly devastating on young children, with the poison affecting brain development, something which the study says has been exacerbated by the underfunding of public health programs which could help diagnose and treat children in the early stages.
Indeed in Indiana, where Vice President-elect Mike Pence was governor, a successful testing program has all but ended because “the funding dried up,” according to former public health program director Sue Taylor.
The Reuters report highlighted the “vicious cycle” of lead poisoning, where “cognitive deficits breed poor school performance, high dropout rates, few job opportunities, and brushes with the law.”
Indeed the report revealed a direct connection between lead poisoning caused by lack of enforcement of building standards, and one of the most high-profile police murders in recent years.
Little known to many, before Freddie Gray was murdered by Baltimore police in 2015, he and his family won an out of court settlement against their landlord who had failed to clean up the lead contamination in their building. Court filings in that case revealed that Gray suffered from health problems directly related to lead exposure.