By Anita Desikan, Union of Concerned Scientists
One of the longest running epidemics in the history of the US is the poisoning of our children with lead. But, as we discuss in our new report on children’s health, the Trump administration is failing to enact or enforce comprehensive measures based on the science that protect children from lead poisoning.
It is worth examining how the current administration has made a few strides in the right direction but, like many previous administrations, the Trump administration is failing to fully protect children, especially children from marginalized communities, from this dangerous and irreversible neurotoxin.
The long and troubling history of childhood lead poisoning
Despite having a wealth of scientific knowledge on the effects of lead poisoning in children that dates back to 1904, millions of children have been subjected to the devastating effects of lead poisoning, which can result in harmful physical and neurological changes that can last decades. One Chicago parent, whose child had been severely poisoned by living in lead-contaminated housing, put it this way, “My baby had been healthy, [but] one day it seemed like the light in his eyes had just gone out.” The CDC says there is no safe level of lead, for even a small amount of lead in the body has been shown to affect IQ, the ability to pay attention, and academic achievement.
Lead poisoning is a condition that is entirely preventable, but unfortunately the US still contains numerous sources of lead that, when disturbed, can affect children. There are about six million lead service lines in use, piping water to households, schools and other buildings, and millions of pre-1978 homes and schools may still contain lead-based paint. Lead-based paint and lead-contaminated dust are considered to be the major sources of lead exposure in children, but lead in drinking water is also an important source of exposure, since drinking water is intended for ingestion.
There is a long history of the government trying to prevent childhood lead poisoning, which has led to certain successes like the removal of lead in gasoline, the banning of lead-based paint, and the removal of lead from children’s toys. The implementation of science-based governmental policies is one of the main drivers for the 90 percent decrease in children’s blood levels from the 1970s to the 2000s.
However, the government also has a long history of failing to enact preventive policies when children from marginalized communities face disproportionate risks from lead exposure. And, due in large part to government-sanctioned racist and discriminatory practices, the sources of lead occur primarily in communities of color, low-income communities and Indigenous communities. Black children are nearly three times more likely than white children to have elevated blood-lead levels. According to one study, 90 percent of the children in some Black and Latinx communities have been poisoned with high levels of lead. Sadly, the tragedy of Flint, Michigan is only the tip of the iceberg; excessively high levels of lead in the drinking water have been found in places like Washington DC, Newark, Pittsburgh and Detroit. According to a Reuters investigation, children in nearly 3,000 neighborhoods in the US have blood lead levels that exceed those from Flint, most often occurring in low-income neighborhoods.
What is the Trump administration doing to protect children living in public housing from lead poisoning?
In December 2018, the Trump administration unveiled a multiagency strategic framework known as the Federal Lead Action Plan that would serve as a “roadmap to reduce lead exposure nationwide.” Some of the stated goals of action plan were to: reduce children’s exposure to lead; diagnose and monitor children who have been exposed to lead; and bolster efforts to communicate the effects of lead exposure, particularly in underserved communities. Under the Trump administration, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has run an educational campaign on the dangers of lead in older homes and has awarded $28 million to clean up lead hazards in public housing. While announcing the grant, HUD Secretary Ben Carson said that, “We have no higher calling than to make certain the public housing that taxpayers support is healthy for our vulnerable families to live in.”
But Carson’s approach to protecting children in public housing from lead-based paint appears to be inadequate. In fact, a group of bipartisan senators introduced their own bill on more rigorous lead paint assessments in public housing in part because they were so fed up of Carson’s inaction on this issue. The last major rulemaking that HUD took on lead poisoning, to lower its definition of elevated blood lead levels (from 20 to 5 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood) to match guidance from the CDC, occurred during the final days of the Obama administration. And HUD’s inspector general (its internal watchdog) and the Government Accountability Office both released reports in 2018 calling out the agency for its woefully ineffective reporting systems for inspecting lead hazards and its lack of following up on children who were poisoned with lead.
Is the Trump administration’s EPA doing any better at preventing lead poisoning?
The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) then-acting administrator Andrew Wheeler declared in a press release in October 2018, “Reducing lead exposure, particularly among children, is a top priority for EPA.” One year later, administrator Wheeler expressed similar sentiment during a public address, “The first—and most fundamental—responsibility of government is to protect the people, especially the most vulnerable among us… And we know that children are especially vulnerable to the potential health effects of many hazards, including lead, which can severely and permanently impact their health and development. It is critical that our decisions and actions protect children’s health and their future.” This is surprising rhetoric from Wheeler, considering that he is not well known for enacting policies that advocate for strong science-based protections for health and safety (see here, here, here, and here), but in this case he is right. The government has a fundamental duty to protect the health and safety of its all people, and children need and deserve protections from the devastating effects of lead poisoning.
Under the Trump administration, the EPA has followed up with some measures related to the federal action plan, including “aggressively” implementing training and testing guidance for lead in drinking water in the New York and New Jersey regions. But the EPA’s main action was a much-needed update on the 1991 Lead and Copper rule, a rule governing the monitoring of lead service water lines. There are some good commonsense and science-based features of this rule, such as strengthening testing protocols and requiring for the first time to test for lead in child-care facilities and schools, but it also contains several shortfalls related to not updating (or even downgrading) its enforcement and compliance mechanisms.
It is no secret that enforcement at the EPA has diminished under the Trump administration, and this trend appears to be contributing to a lack of effective lead prevention efforts. According to a report by the EPA’s inspector general in September 2019, oversight and enforcement are lacking in the EPA’s implementation of the safeguards protecting children from lead-based paint. One of the more disconcerting findings is that the EPA is failing to track measures related to elevated blood lead levels in young children that may highlight disparities, which is at odds with the EPA’s EJ 2020 action agenda to address environmental justice issues.
The sidelining of the science on childhood lead poisoning needs to stop
Science serves as a fundamental basis for the government policies that protect the environment and our health and safety. And in this case, there is no uncertainty in the science. Lead has been known to be toxic since ancient Greek and Roman times; scientific evidence demonstrating the risks of lead poisoning from ingestion and occupational exposure date back to the early and mid-1800s, respectively; studies in the early 1940’s were the first to prove that children who survived acute lead intoxication were often left with devastating intellectual deficits; and studies in the 1970s and 1980sdemonstrated that even small, asymptomatic levels of lead exposure could cause lasting neurological harm to children.
And when the science tells us is that lead is highly toxic and that children are highly vulnerable to lead exposure, we need our government to take action and carry out science-based measures that prevent lead poisoning for children, especially children from marginalized communities who face disproportionately high exposures to lead. Though the Trump administration has publicly praised the idea of lead prevention efforts and has developed a federal action plan, the administration has mostly failed to put real “teeth” behind its efforts to prevent childhood lead poisoning. And while the US government’s efforts to prevent lead poisoning in children has been long been problematic, the Trump administration appears to be atrophying the current enforcement mechanisms in place designed to prevent lead poisoning, which is undoubtedly exacerbating the harm to children across the nation, especially children from disenfranchised communities.