This is Part #2 of my three part article on the lead crisis in the United States. If you haven’t read the first installment of this article, please follow this link before reading further. Part #3 will be released tomorrow.
Lead in the Water
Before Americans realized how dangerous lead could be to human health, we used lead for a variety of applications that put into contact without our food and water—this includes making water pipes out of lead.
Lead pipes were installed into houses and water systems throughout the 20th century and many remain there to this day. Making pipes out of lead was seen as a good investment because lead corrodes slowly and it was believed that lead pipes would last longer than other types of pipe. Even when the pipes themselves were not made out of lead, many construction groups used lead solder to connect pipes together and ensure that they wouldn’t leak. Unfortunately, while lead doesn’t corrode quickly, it does eventually start to degrade and leach into the water that is flowing through the pipes. This degradation is accelerated if the water is acidic or hot, making it a particular concern where lead was used between boilers and outputs (e.g. home plumbing systems).
The water infrastructure of the United States is woefully unsupported (100-year old wooden water pipes are still installed in some systems) and there is no national campaign to completely purge the system of these lead pipes. Terrible scandals like the Flint water crisis can generate enough public outrage to address this problem in a localized area, but this outrage doesn’t translate into a national call to action.
In addition to lead contamination caused by pipes, there is a danger that drinking water is contaminated with lead-tainted runoff. This can be caused by a variety of situations, such as when people drink from wells that are near industrial sites or scrapyards which have not complied with anti-pollution laws.
If you are worried that your water supply is contaminated with lead, you can contact a local testing lab that has been certified by the EPA in order to get your home tested—here is a link to the EPA’s national registry of labs.
Lead in the Earth
Lead is a heavy metal that can contaminate the earth for years, creating a series of problems. Soil that is contaminated with lead is dangerous if inhaled or ingested, and is particularly harmful to children, who tend to put things in their mouths and play in the dirt.
Sites that held significant amounts of lead—particularly scrap yards, factories that produced lead products and industrial sites that used leaded gasoline—can remain toxic until all of the lead leaches out of the soil. As this takes many years (the exact amount of time depends upon the climate), new buildings are sometimes built on contaminated land before it is safe for people to live there.
Signs from East Chicago
One disturbing example of this type of lead contamination can be seen in the West Calumet Housing Projects, located in East Chicago, Indiana. These housing projects were built in 1972 to serve a predominantly lower income African American population. Unfortunately, while the buildings themselves were sound, the land that the projects were built on previously housed an oil/gas distributor that had stored large quantities of leaded gasoline, as well as three old lead smelting facilities. This lead had contaminated the soil to an astonishing degree—measurements found that the soil lead levels could be as high as 91,000 parts per million (nearly 290 times the EPA’s safety threshold of 316 ppm).
Despite the extreme danger associated with lead levels that high, residents were not told of this situation until 2010, and nearly 2 generations of children were raised in this toxic mess. Unsurprisingly, many of the children who grew up in this housing project developed significant health problems, and almost all of them likely suffered from some detrimental impact on their development (it is very hard to quantify IQ or impulse control losses due to lead). Currently, the EPA and HUD are working to move people out of this housing complex, but this will not help those who have already been harmed.
If you are interested in this situation and want to learn more, the only in-depth coverage I have seen on this crisis was conducted by TYT Politics reporter Jordan Chariton—here is a link to one of his interviews with some residents of the housing complex.
The East Chicago crisis is not unique (although it is an extreme example) and there are numerous neighborhoods built upon contaminated land. Often, the public is not made aware of the dangers they face and the EPA simply doesn’t have the resources to properly monitor every neighborhood that may be at risk.
Other Sources of Exposure
While lead exposure typically occurs through air or water contamination, there are other, less common, ways that people are exposed.
First, there are occupational sources of lead that people can be exposed to if their employer fails to follow OSHA safety precautions. This type of exposure can happen to workers in a variety of occupations, but is most common in the manufacturers of automobiles, ceramics and batteries, as well as those who work to smelt lead in its raw form (obviously).
Second, there are consumer sources of lead, particularly in low-quality imported goods. Many nations don’t have the same lead standards and quality controls that the USA does, thus there is a significant danger that imported goods are contaminated with lead. For example, there have been numerous examples of unscrupulous toy manufacturers (often from China) using lead paint on their toys, forcing the CDC to issue product recalls and bans when they find contamination.