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Environmental injustice: High lead levels in children can have devastating effects

Lack of action or concrete solutions to this epidemic is a conscious disregard for the health, safety, and livelihood of low-income, minority communities.

photo of protest in baltimore
Protesters created a chalk drawing in Baltimore on Independence Day 2016 to protest police brutality — and specifically the killing of Freddie Gray.
Photo by Honor Kalala

High levels of lead in one’s body can be fatal, and often not in the direct way one might imagine. Freddie Gray was born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland, in a home plagued with chipping lead paint. At 12 months old Gray was tested to have 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood in his body, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) having set 5 mg/dl as the blood lead level (BLL) defined as “elevated,” indicating a need for further testing. Three months later, his blood tested at 30 mg/dl. At 22 months, Gray’s blood contained 37 mg/dl.

Honor Kalala
According to the CDC, “There is no known identified safe BLL.” It says exposure increases risks for “damage to the brain and nervous system, slowed growth and development, learning and behavior problems (e.g., reduced IQ, ADHD, juvenile delinquency, and criminal behavior), and hearing and speech problems.”

Special ed, early trouble with the law

In an article in The Washington Post titled, “Freddie Gray’s life a study on the effects of lead paint on poor blacks,” Terrence McCoy writes that lead poisoning can “diminish cognitive function, increase aggression and ultimately exacerbate the cycle of poverty that is already exceedingly difficult to break.” As a child, he reports, Gray was put into special education classes and started running into trouble with the law early. These symptoms, of aggression and difficulty in traditional schooling, are ones that our society associates with “problem students” — a term too often coded to mean black and brown students.

The unequal exposure to lead (primarily from lead containing paint) for poor and black communities is an environmental injustice because it perpetuates some of the worst issues these communities face. Gray’s case highlights an important intersection between the environmental justice movement and the rising Black Lives Matter movement.

The Black Lives Matter movement was created out of outrage over the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the man who killed Trayvon Martin in 2013. Since then, it has evolved to refer mainly to the unfair and harmful treatment of black men by the police. Because there is an over-representation of police in communities of color and an already strained relationship between the community and law enforcement, lead poisoning doesn’t only pose a health risk cognitively, but it can also be the trigger for increased police brutality.

Too often punished, kicked out of school

Thousands of poor, primarily black, children are now growing up with this reality of undiagnosed or unrecognized lead poisoning, and are expected to develop at the same rates as their healthy peers. And then these sick children are punished, kicked out of school, and too often incarcerated shortly after, when they fail to do so. A child’s life and chances of success can be vastly decreased if they are poisoned with lead. They are, wrote McCoy in the Post article on Gray,  “… seven times more likely to drop out of school and six times more likely to end up in the juvenile justice system.” The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) describes this school-to-prison pipeline as a “national trend wherein children are funneled out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems.”

Because the lead poisoning epidemic has been so ignored in inner cities, lead-poisoned students who display a difficulty focusing, aggression, and poor decision-making are criminalized as opposed to treated with accommodations for the disabilities they now have. This introduction to the criminal justice and law enforcement system at a young age only increases recidivism and perpetuates this cycle of violence and crime, which could have been avoided if people like Freddie Gray had gotten the help they needed as children.

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Freddie Gray was arrested on April 12, 2015, after he “fled unprovoked” from officers. He was accused of possessing an illegal switchblade. Gray was shackled and placed in the back of a police van. Forty-five minutes later he was found unconscious and unresponsive, his spinal cord nearly severed. He died one week later, on April 19, in the hospital. His death, and the larger issue of lead poisoning in black and low-income communities, is an injustice greater than any individual act of racism or prejudice.

Information about the number of children and young adults affected by lead poisoning is accessible. Examples like Gray testing far above the “elevated” lead level as a young child are available. Lack of action or concrete solutions to this epidemic is a conscious disregard for the health, safety, and livelihood of low income, minority communities. This needs to be an issue that is at the top of many more people’s concerns. Therefore, I urge all those reading this to think about this epidemic and its implications when deciding who will earn your political support in both local elections and the upcoming 2020 presidential election.

Honor Kalala is an undergraduate student at Macalester College studying sociology and psychology.

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