Lead Poisoning and Black Children

The commentator talks about a recent study from the University of Michigan focusing on the health risks posed to African-American children from lead poisoning.

ED GORDON, host:

Pediatricians and health advocates have long known the health risks of lead. A recent study from the University of Michigan found that of children diagnosed with lead poisoning, only half of them receive any kind of follow-up care or testing. This is a particular problem in the African-American community, since blacks are five times more likely to be poisoned by lead. Commentator Kristal Brent Zook says the toxicity of lead is affecting black kids in ways seldom though of.

KRISTAL BRENT ZOOK:

We've known about the dangers of lead forever. Roman emperor Nero was poisoned by lead, after all. We know that the substance is extremely toxic, especially to developing young brains. It only takes a tiny hint of lead, the size of a sugar speck really, to cause learning and behavioral problems, stunted growth, aggression and memory and hearing loss, particularly among kids and developing fetuses. A Colorado State University researcher called the relationship between lead and low academic test scores, quote, "so extreme it's almost beyond belief," end quote.

And yet, our government continues to turn a blind eye to the toxins in old paint and even in imported toys, dishes and furniture from unregulated developing countries. Industries began reporting lead waste in the 1990s, but there's still much we don't know. A study in the summer 2005 Journal Environmental Health Perspective found that with dry, hot wind, inner city kids are exposed to still more lead from soil blowing across playgrounds. That means if they don't get enough of the poison inside their public housing apartments, there's still more waiting for them outside in the fresh air.

Sure, we got the lead out of gasoline and banned the sale of residential lead-based paint in the 1970s, but then we got lazy. According to figures from the Centers for Disease Control, over a million children are impacted by lead. That can result in unexplained low IQs. But even this is a soft estimate. Only a small fraction of kids are actually tested for lead, and millions more live in homes with hazardous levels of lead paint. Yet, we wonder why the country is getting dumber and kids can't sit still. Because poisons are attacking their brains. That's why.

And we're not just talking about people of color in public housing projects either. Recently, I visited a white middle-class family in Birmingham, Alabama, where a 19-month-old boy named Alex still had not learned to speak a word and suffered from severe stomach cramps, hyperactivity and incessant screaming. For months, his family doctor mistook the problem for a bad case of the terrible twos. When Alex was finally tested, his lead levels were in the lethal range. His contamination was from old paint in the family's new home, which a realtor had failed to disclose.

But what's most disturbing is that his parents only received his test results from state health agencies after months of frantic phone calls, letters and requests. And finally, with the help of a non-profit organization, Citizens' Lead Education and Poisoning Prevention, both the EPA and HUD have pledged to eliminate lead poisoning by the year 2010.

But many say such promises are all hype, no action. For years, the feds have allowed states like Alabama to slip by without reporting any kind of lead records. And now, the Bush administration has even taken a pass on imposing mandatory regulations for home and commercial improvement, where lead is most likely to be kicked up in the form of dust. That decision could endanger millions of families and construction workers, not to mention all those lead babies.

GORDON: Kristal Brent Zook is a professor at Columbia University and a contributing writer for Essence magazine.

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