Page images
[merged small][graphic]


Inner City Children
Suffer Most

by Joel Schwartz and Ronnie Levin


o some extent, everyone is exposed

to lead because industrialized society has widely contaminated the environment with it. Sophisticated geochemical analyses show that lead contamination in the United States is hundreds of times higher than in pre-industrialized times. Moreover, lead contaminates every part of the environment-air, surface and ground water, soil—and each medium serves as a potential pathway of human exposure. Current body burdens of lead, on the average, are estimated to be 1,000 times higher than in prehistoric humans. Lead exposure and uptake are particularly problematic in children, who may suffer irreversible effects, including learning impairment, as a result.

But while everyone is exposed to some lead, lead has a very skewed

profile of exposure and uptake by race measure of blood lead concentrations. and social class probably more so

For black children, however, the than any of the other major pollutants average blood lead level was 21 ug/dl; to which the general population is

for children in the lowest fifth of exposed. Lead also differs from most family income, 20 ug/dl. Blood lead pollutants in another, more positive levels were notably elevated for respect: In the last two decades, we've children living in inner city areas. made the greatest progress in reducing Poor black children in the inner city overall lead exposure. Still, while had an average blood lead level of 23 exposures have been reduced overall,

mg/dl. minority and lower income children To put this latter figure in retain a higher risk of elevated blood perspective, consider that the Centers lead levels, a disparity that has been in for Disease Control recommended in evidence for decades.

the 1980s that any child with a blood In the Second National Health and lead level of 25 g/dl or higher be Nutrition Examination Survey

given a full-day test to determine
(NHANES II), conducted between 1976 whether hospitalization was needed.
and 1980, the average blood lead level An even more dramatic comparison:
for children aged 6 and under was Recently, a child with a blood lead
found to be 16 micrograms of lead per level of 144 mg/dl died from massive
deciliter of blood (ug/dl)—which is the brain damage. In other words, poor
most commonly used standard

black children in inner city
neighborhoods in the 1970s had

average blood lead concentrations Urban Children 0.5-5 Years Old with Elevated amounting to over 15 percent of a Blood Levels, by Race and Income

potentially fatal dose. For no other

toxic substance in modern times has 1100%

the average exposure for a large group been so close to the fatal dose.

Fortunately, a great deal of progress Black

has been made in reducing blood lead 80

levels in the United States, due in no White

small part to restrictions on lead in gasoline. More than half of the average

blood lead level in U.S. children in the 60

1970s was attributable to lead in gasoline emissions. When unleaded gasoline was introduced and the amount of lead limited in leaded

gasoline, those emissions declined 1401

dramatically. Lead in gasoline today is less than half a percent of what it was at its maximum, and it will be banned

entirely in 1996. 20

Other actions to reduce lead exposures have also had a significant impact, and continued improvements are expected. For example, the Food

and Drug Administration (FDA) has Less than $6,000 to More than taken steps to substantially reduce the $6,000 $15,000 $15,000

use of lead solder in canned food,


(Schwartz is a Senior Scientist with EPA's Office of Policy, Planning, and Evaluation. Levin is Chief of the Water Staff, Office of Technology Transfer and Regulatory Support, in the Office of Research and Development.)

[graphic][merged small][merged small][merged small]

Lead Free Kids photo.

formerly a significant source of lead will make race and income even better exposure. At present, average blood indicators now than previously of the lead level in American children is

likelihood of elevated blood lead estimated to be under 6 ug/dl,

levels. considerably lower than found in

The obvious question is, Why? NHANES II.

Gasoline, of course, was a lead In addition, EPA recently issued exposure source that affected the entire rules requiring water suppliers to make population. Most of the lead particles their water less corrosive. Lead

emitted from car tail pipes are quite contaminates drinking water when the small, and their distribution across water corrodes the materials of the urban areas is relatively uniform. public water system and the plumbing Everyone breathes the air, and within the home; also when lead is everyone benefitted when lead was leached from the lead solder used to curtailed in gasoline. Similarly, most join copper pipes, from lead pipes and of the population benefitted when the connections, and from faucets and

use of lead solder in canned food was other plumbing fixtures. Therefore, eliminated. reducing the corrosivity of the water is In contrast, exposure to lead paint, a expected to significantly reduce lead major remaining exposure pathway, is levels in drinking water.

much less uniform. Housing built To date, the overall improvement before 1950 is most likely to contain has been dramatic in that blood lead paint with high concentrations of lead. levels in every age, race, sex, and After 1950, the lead content of paint income category have decreased

declined substantially, and the use of throughout the country. Ironically, lead paint for houses was banned in however, the general decline appears the 1970s. Survey data from the U.S. to have increased the disparity in Department of Housing and Urban blood lead levels by race and social Development (HUD) indicate that 90 class. While income and especially percent of housing built before 1940 race have always been important

contains some lead paint, as does 62 variables of exposure, we expect that percent of housing built between 1960 the continuing decline in the blood and 1979. The survey assumes that lead levels in the general population virtually no housing built after 1980

But the mere presence of lead paint or even the concentration of lead in the paint does not tell the whole story. For one thing, the condition of the paint is critical. Lead paint that is well covered with non-lead paint, and in good condition, results in much lower lead exposures than exposed paint in poor condition. Everyone knows about children being poisoned by eating lead paint chips. But that's not really common. In fact, most cases of lead paint poisoning seem to occur from the ingestion of common household dust that has been contaminated with lead. The normal hand-to-mouth activity of small children results in their ingesting enough contaminated dust to raise their blood lead levels and even to poison them.

In homes with lead paint in deteriorated condition, the concentrations of lead in the dust are likely to be high. Adults as well as children are exposed to dust-dust that settles on plates and glasses, dust that contaminates carpets and furnishings, dust that we breathe, etc. More dust can mean higher lead exposures. Simply put, for the same presence of lead paint on the wall, the degree of risk presented can vary widely depending on how much exposure there is—how deteriorated the paint is, how much lead infiltrates the house dust, how much dust is present, and what the activity patterns

[merged small][graphic][merged small][merged small]

are for children and other family members.

For all these reasons, exposure to lead from paint, unlike lead from gasoline, is highly variable. Some houses have lead paint; some don't. Some buildings have lead paint in poor condition. The more dilapidated the housing, the higher the lead exposures are likely to be. Housing condition is largely a function of income.

Lead-contaminated soil is another source of exposure, but again the degree of potential exposure is highly variable. Decades of lead emissions from gasoline now contaminate urban soils, along with some deposition from other sources of lead. In older residential areas, more than a century's use of lead in exterior house paint has raised soil lead levels.

Soil contaminated by lead can be a significant exposure source, especially for children. And once more,

the exposure of poor and minority children is likely to be higher, both because lower income and minority groups are more heavily concentrated in older urban areas and because their yards are more likely to have exposed soil-in other words, less likely to have ground cover, lawn furniture, swing sets, or other barriers to the soil. So, again, even for the same contamination level in the soil, lower income children are likely to have higher actual exposures. Of course, higher lead levels in soils and more exposed soil also increase the likelihood of introducing lead into interior house dust, another pathway for lead exposure.

There are still other lead exposure sources that disproportionately affect lower income and minority groups. One is occupational exposure. Several surveys suggest that both groups are heavily represented in jobs at risk of having high occupational lead exposures. These occupations include construction, primary and secondary

smelting, automobile repair, welding, ratio, etc. To be fully effective,
and salvage work. Occupational

successful intervention programs must exposures in adults are often linked

target behavior as well as the physical with elevated lead levels in other

environment. family members, especially children. Because of the factors discussed in Unfortunately, occupationally exposed this article, we expect that blood lead workers have not shown the same levels have probably fallen by a overall decrease in blood lead levels smaller than average percentage in that has been seen in the general poor inner city neighborhoods and population over the past 15 years. among certain ethnic racial groups.

Certain consumer products also Equity considerations are a major represent exposure sources that are concern with lead exposure, in part likely to affect specific ethnic groups. because such exposure is associated Several studies have indicated that with increased risk of compromised some traditional medicines, cosmetics, cognitive development and abilities and foods from a range of cultures can and resulting substandard school contain high levels of lead. These performance. The inequity of imposing goods, along with ethnic and

such a burden on children of lower handmade potteries that leach high socio-economic status and/or children lead levels, can all be sources of

from disadvantaged ethnic or racial increased lead exposure and even groups is obvious: It compounds their toxicity. Brass and especially bronze burden by leaving them with fewer are used for cooking and eating

skills to overcome the disadvantages utensils in several cultures; both alloys that face them. can contain and leach high levels of By design, EPA regulations and lead.

programs have thus far aimed It is important to note that while primarily to reduce the general FDA has been successful in working population's exposure to lead. The with the U.S. food processing industry Centers for Disease Control and other to eliminate the use of lead solder in federal agencies are now developing a cans produced domestically, imported nationwide strategy to address lead cans are not currently regulated in this paint exposure, which is currently the way. Some ethnic groups consume most important exposure source. This significant quantities of imported strategy specifically targets lead canned foods, and they are at risk of exposures predominantly affecting higher lead exposure from this source. children who are already

These last points raise a difficult disadvantaged issue. Children or adults may have

EPA is participating in the elevated blood lead levels both

development and implementation of because of higher environmental the strategy in several ways: by exposures and because of behavior

helping to design training programs for patterns that increase intake. The use lead paint abatement workers, by of certain traditional remedies or

conducting research on innovative canned foods with lead is one such approaches that can reduce the cost of behavior pattern. The degree of

lead paint abatement, and by providing hand-to-mouth activity or the

technical assistance to CDC and HUD frequency of hand washing can

in designing their programs. If fully modulate exposures. Many other implemented, these initiatives should factors can also affect a child's

reduce the disparity in lead exposures exposure to and uptake of lead from among the U.S. population. O the environment, including nutritional status, eating habits, adult-to-child

Grass-Roots Groundswell



by Norris McDonald


he environmental status of

minority communities in America can be defined by the effects of the dominant culture's practices of consumption, competition, and conquest. The dominant culture conquered the Native Americans, enslaved Africans, and competed among its members for ownership and exploitation of natural resources, thus setting the tone for minorities' environmental circumstances today. This is the context in which minority communities have experienced and continue to face disproportionate impacts from environmental problems.

Historically, America's dominant culture has exerted ecological dominance over minorities including African Americans, Native Americans, and Latino Americans. The record of this dominance is familiar. Moreover, the general public is becoming increasingly aware of the environmental aspects of this legacy. Environmental racism and equity issues are being articulated, researched, and documented. The challenge lies in where minority communities go from here.

In recent decades, minority groups have competed successfully for some civil liberties. This achievement significantly increased their freedom of movement and opportunity. However, African Americans are still reeling from the effects of hundreds of years of degradation. African Americans lead the nation in virtually every health risk category. American society is as segregated as ever: There is a white side and minority side of town in virtually every major city in the United States.

Minority communities have been

[ocr errors]

Copyright 1990. Joe DeVera photo. The Detroit News,

In Detroit, neighborhood organizations plant trees in remembrance of young people who have been killed in street violence.

Grass-Roots Groundswell

and remain, in short, environmental rights movement of the 1960s, to clean dumping grounds. Will the dominant up the air, water, food, land, toxic culture, which has not been known to wastes, and toxic behavior. In addition redistribute natural resources to the to cleaning up the neighborhood, this benefit of minority groups, relinquish

effort will provide development, its control of such resources? Will the employment, and economic power dominant culture clean up minority within minority communities. communities? Will it redirect the

Many urban minority communities nation's vast resources in a massive are located in areas that are environmental reclamation program in consistently in violation of the Clean minority communities? Will it embrace Air Act. Asthma is killing African minority cultures as its own and

Americans in unprecedented numbers. thoroughly integrate itself into these Black males in urban areas are five communities? History provides no times as likely to die from asthma as precedent for such occurrences.

whites in the same settings. Minorities Therefore, minority communities will must eliminate ground-level ozone and have to take the initiative to eliminate otherwise clean the air in their environmental pollution by whatever communities. Lead poisoning is means necessary.

causing tragic disabilities among Some 20 years ago, comedian and minority children: The sources of this nutritionist Dick Gregory noted that

lead contamination must be removed. “America is insecure .... Americans Minorities must clean up polluted will permit the continuation of a

drinking water in their communities in polluted system which makes billions both urban and rural areas. They must of dollars through reckless pollution." clean up the land and neutralize toxic Jazz musician Miles Davis addressed waste sites. Minority communities environmental issues in his

must alter their food consumption autobiography: “[Pollution is

patterns to improve health. Toxic everywhere. Polluted lakes, oceans, behavior-drug killings, addictive drug rivers; polluted ground, trees, fish use, and crime-must be significantly everything. I mean they're just ... so

reduced greedy. I'm talking about whites who Minorities do not own the refineries are doing this ... (to) the ozone

or chemical facilities that have layer."

What can minority communities do to reclaim their environmental destiny? Ultimately, minority communities have one of two choices for cleaning up their environments: (1) replace the dominant culture; or (2) clean up their own environments. The first choice is probably not practical or

The author is possible. The second choice is

pictured at the imminently practical and definitely

Anacostia possible. In fact, minority communities

River in must lead the way in cleaning up their Washington,

DC. own communities. To the extent that the dominant culture is willing or able to assist, so much the better. However, minority communities cannot afford to wait for the dominant culture to "get environmental religion," so to speak.

What will this minority environmental clean-up campaign look like? Minority communities need to implement an all-out effort, comparable to but larger than the civil

produced the pollution dumped in
their backyards. Since they do not
have a vested interest in these
companies, minority communities are
in a unique position to lead the nation
toward implementation of appropriate
energy and manufacturing
technologies. There is an opportunity
to play a leadership role in fostering a
nonpolluting, innovative, competitive
economic renaissance.

Environmental justice will be attained as minority communities rid themselves of pollution problems. Environmental racism will become irrelevant as environmental solutions are adopted and maintained by minority communities that are now disproportionately polluted.

There really isn't an alternative. The very health and existence of some of these communities are on the line. The time has come to seize the environmental initiative and clean up minority communities by whatever means necessary. The stories that follow provide some examples of what can be achieved when community groups take the initiative on behalf of their own environment. O

(McDonald is President of the Center for Environment, Commerce, and Energy in Washington, DC.)


Leslie J. Smith, Jr. photo. USA Today.

[ocr errors]
« PreviousContinue »