By Keith Rushing, Earthjustice
Nearly two months of President Trump’s “shock and awe” tactics have much of the nation understandably reeling from an unprecedented onslaught of extremism.
We’ve seen nationalistic chest-thumping, immigrant bashing and Islamophobia. Trump mixes his paranoid worldview with the disdain for the federal government and debunked trickle-down economics that corporations love. For them, it’s all about profit.
On the losing side of this equation are those who are most vulnerable, who depend on federal services for their well-being: low-income and middle-class communities, people of color and the disabled. Responding to the ever-present turmoil; the constant churn of crazy ideas and nasty tweets; the blame, hate and fear, distracts us from very real issues that have gone largely underreported.
Responding to the ever-present turmoil; the constant churn of crazy ideas and nasty tweets; the blame, hate and fear, distracts us from very real issues that have gone largely underreported.
Last month, two public schools in the Bronx were found to have faucets discharging water with extremely high lead levels because the water passed through lead pipes. Also in February, the Washington Post reported that a 2-year-old Washington, D.C., girl, Heavenz Luster, had the highest blood lead levels identified in D.C. in decades. Luster’s blood had 120 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood, 24 times the level at which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says medical concern is warranted.
Lead exposure has damaged Luster’s life. Luster doesn’t answer when her name is called. She’s not able to point or use words. She screams and rocks from side to side for no apparent reason. She’s anxious and has delayed cognitive and motor skills. Luster was poisoned while living in a private house provided by the city for homeless families. The house, built in 1923, had a history of peeling lead paint.
Luster’s medical issues are not unique; they are symptomatic of a larger, unaddressed problem that cries out for attention from the federal agencies Trump wants to de-fund and de-fang.
Lead is a potent neurotoxic chemical, and there are no known safe levels of human exposure, according to the World Health Organization. During his confirmation hearing for the job of EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt seemed not to know this fact, saying he’d have to review the scientific research on lead exposure. Children are especially vulnerable when exposed to lead early in life, including in utero. Neurological harm from lead exposure is irreversible. Lead can also cause grave harm to the hematologic, gastrointestinal, cardiovascular and renal systems in children and adults.
Often, the cognitive deficits and impulsive behavior associated with lead poisoning lead to problems in school and entanglements with the criminal justice system. Lead exposure is more prevalent in low-income communities and communities of color, according to the EPA.
The CDC estimates that 4 million children in the United States are exposed to high levels of lead. In fact, according to a recent Reuters special report, there are 3,000 areas of the country with lead poisoning rates that far exceed national water safety standards, reminiscent of the catastrophic situation in Flint, Michigan. Flint’s water contamination problem first garnered national attention in 2015.
The CDC estimates that 4 million children in the United States are exposed to high levels of lead.
Much of the nation’s lead poisoning is caused by peeling paint, aging water pipes and metal products that have been left over from widespread industrial use over decades. This “legacy lead” is in our water, soil, dust and air. Lead also enters our communities every year from new sources, such as lead wheel weights used to balance car and truck tires, certain cosmetics and hair dyes, industrial emissions and leaded gasoline for piston-engine aircraft.
There’s little federal help to pay for blood tests for lead exposure, and local laws often don’t require property owners to abate, or remove, lead, according to Reuters. Many environmental, health and citizens’ groups have been pushing the EPA to strengthen lead protections for the millions of children who are impacted. In August, a coalition of national and local groups from across the country, represented by Earthjustice, sued the EPA for failing to update standards that protect families against lead-based paint and lead dust.
Lead exposure is a serious health issue. The question is, what will this administration do about it?
In September, during the presidential campaign, Trump called Flint’s water problem “a shame” and vowed to fix it. But Trump has made it clear that he wants to gut environmental regulations and slash EPA funding. EPA administrator Pruitt has spent a substantial portion of his career serving as a shill for polluters and suing the EPA over common-sense regulations that he called “excessive.”
A ray of hope may come from Ben Carson, who said during his confirmation hearing for Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) that dealing with lead would be a priority for him—not only abating lead, but also establishing clinics to address lead exposure. And Trump’s budget blueprint, which slashes HUD funds by 13 percent, does include a modest proposed increase of $20 million over last year’s budget for addressing lead-based paint in the homes of low-income families.
Whatever happens in the coming months, we know that amid the continued shock and awe and the presidential tweetstorms designed to distract, millions of children and families remain at risk.