I have been stripping many layers of paint from the columns on my porch. The most recent layers come off easily, but underneath are more stubborn coatings of old lead-based paints. They take more work and require more care, because lead is one of the most pervasive poisons in our environment. I wear a mask to protect against the lead dust.
Ingesting lead can harm every organ and system in our bodies. It is dangerous for adults, who can suffer from damage to the nervous system, increases in blood pressure, anemia, and weakness in the extremities. Exposure to lead for pregnant women can cause miscarriages. Children are especially vulnerable, because lead can injure their developing minds and bodies permanently.
Problems with lead exposure are of such concern, because lead was a common additive to paint until very recently. Lead speeds up drying and increases durability. Lead was used to make white paint by the ancient Greeks. The dangers of working with lead have been known for hundreds of years. The monthly newsletter of the Sherwin-Williams Co. noted the dangers of lead in white paint in 1904. In 1886, German law prevented women and children from working in factories that processed lead paint, and Australia banned lead paint in 1914.
Yet toys and furniture in the U.S. continued to be painted with lead-based products. Older homes were covered with lead paint. Children put lead into their mouths every day. Public health researchers wrote, “By the 1920s, virtually every item a toddler touched had some amount of lead in or on it. Toy soldiers and dolls, painted toys, bean bags that were tossed around, baseballs, fishing lures, the porcelain, pipes and joints in the sparkling new kitchens and bathrooms of the expanding housing stock—all were made of or contained large amounts of lead.”
Our federal government was slow to prevent continued lead poisoning in America. Baltimore prohibited the use of lead paint in interiors in 1951. In 1955, the paint industry adopted voluntary standards which excluded lead from interior paints. The use of lead paint was already in decline due to health concerns by then. Yet it was not until 1971 that the federal government passed the Lead-Based Paint Poisoning Prevention Act, which prohibited lead paint in new homes.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission finally banned lead paint for consumer use in 1978. That agency was created by the Consumer Product Safety Act of 1972, passed with overwhelming bipartisan support and signed by President Nixon. Congressional Republicans and conservative Democrats had tried to prevent the creation of the independent Commission, and to gut the Act’s enforcement provisions, but narrowly lost.
In 1986, the California legislature said that lead exposure was the state’s greatest childhood environmental health problem. Lead is so dangerous that nobody would allow children to ingest lead. Unless those children are poor inner-city blacks. This impoverished, majority-black city was devastated by the closing of General Motors factories in the 1980s. When the water supply was changed to the Flint River in 2014, residents immediately began complaining about pollution. Less obvious were the elevated levels of lead, which systematically poisoned the city’s population. Michigan state officials, including those in the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, dismissed the residents’ concerns and repeatedly claimed the water was safe. Republicans and Democrats participated in creating and prolonging the crisis, because they didn’t want to spend the money to deal with it. Now several Michigan officials have been convicted of crimes and a generation of Flint children have been poisoned with lead.
The story of lead poisoning of the water supply in Flint, Michigan, is complicated and controversial. Lawsuits will seek to find those to blame for years to come. But the lessons from Flint are obvious now. Bad environmental decisions can damage enormous numbers of people. Regulation of the poisons which abound in our society are necessary for public health. Governments are responsible to protect our lives.
The demonization of “regulations” that has been a hallmark of Republican politics for decades and that was one of Donald Trump’s signature campaign issues means less protection from all kinds of dangers to our lives, from unscrupulous banking practices (Wells Fargo), to outrageous payday loan interest rates, to unsafe foods, to pollution of our air and water.
The story of lead poisoning in America shows government acting too timidly, permitting industry lobbyists to block safety legislation, while adults and children suffer long-term health problems that could have been prevented. Flint is the tip of an iceberg of water supply problems across the nation’s cities. Minority inner city residents are the most likely to suffer.
It will take lots of money to replace the lead in old water pipes around the country. It will take strict government regulations on lead and other environmental hazards to keep Americans healthy. Conservatives say regulations are “job killers”. I say they are life savers.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, November 22, 2016