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Missouri suddenly burst onto the national scene for all the wrong reasons when a single neighborhood had about 120 children being detected for lead poisoning since 2010, making it one of the most toxic areas in the state. Flint put the issue of lead poisoning at the forefront, as its residents complained of all kinds of problems after being exposed to lead. Despite that, Flint doesn’t even rank among the most dangerous places for lead poisoning in the US!

About 3000 areas in the US had lead poisoning rates that were more than double of Flint’s lead poisoning crisis at its peak. And roughly 1100 of these areas had poisoning rates that were at least four times higher! These areas can be found all over the country, right from Pennsylvania and Texas to Baltimore and Philadelphia.

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Most of these areas have fallen victim to things like old plumbing, industrial waste and crumbling paint, but they simply haven’t received any attention or funding that can help them combat this with lead replacement methods and lead substitutes. To further examine the issue, Reuters examined blood testing results at a neighborhood level. This offered a minute insight into the government’s efforts to eradicate lead poisoning, most of which have fallen way short.

Says expert Dr. Egger, “the disparities you’ve found between different areas have stark implications. Where lead poisoning remains common, many children will have developmental delays and start out behind all the rest.” The CDC estimates that about 2.5 percent of the nation’s children suffer from elevated levels of lead poisoning, and this could lead to stunted development and reduced IQ.

Determining the Problem

Most state-wide and country-wide data on lead poisoning is too broad to determine where kids face the greatest risk of lead poisoning. This is why Reuters sought for neighborhood level testing data in all 50 states. It discovered that as many as 2606 census tracts (county subdivisions with 4000 residents each) and 278 zip codes (population of 7500 each) had levels of lead poisoning that are at least two times of Flint.

Co-chair of CDC’s Lead Content Work Group, Robert Walker, analyses the case of lead poisoning. “I hope this data spurs questions from the public to community leaders who can make changes,” says Walker. The findings will help educate the public about the risks posed in and around their homes and allow officials to seek grants for the most affected areas. The average levels of lead may have dropped by as much as 90% since lead was phased out from gasoline and paint in the 70s, but that really doesn’t make a difference to kids from one of these areas suffering from lead poisoning, does it? Especially at a time when lead substitutes are easily available!

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The Vicious Cycle of Lead

As many as four million children in the US fall into a vicious cycle that involves cognitive deficits which lead to high dropout rates, lesser job opportunities, poor performance in school and problems with the law. Baltimore’s Freddie Gray is an example of what the fate this toxic substance leads to. Gray lived in an old house with lead paint and was exposed to developmental problems at an early age. Gray’s home lies in an area that is subjected to shocking levels of lead. His cycle met a sad end with a spinal cord injury in the back of a police van, which caused even more problems, fueling the debate of harsh policing in black neighborhoods. And Baltimore isn’t alone. States like Cleveland and Pennsylvania have similar problems as well.

The Need for Funding

Kids around the US go untested for lead poisoning, especially in the high-risk areas. Places like South Bend, Indiana witness a sharp cash crunch, which means that lead testing is on a serious decline, even when data points otherwise. In one particular track, as much as 31% of the kids tested between 2005 – 2015 had high levels of lead, which as 6 times that of Flint in the same period. Obviously, the area also has one of the highest poverty rates in town. “We are the lowest of the low in terms of public health funding,” says Dr. Luis Galup, the county health officer. “It’s an eye-opener,” Mayor Pete Buttigieg notes of Reuters study. “The county health department does everything they can just to keep up with child immunizations and restaurant inspections,” he adds.

What’s needed is an integrated approach to tackle the case of lead poisoning, focusing on high-risk areas and trying to eliminate this issue with the help of lead replacement methods and lead substitutes. It needs a coordinated effort between federal and state officials, and that is easier said than done. That said, with increasing public awareness, and thanks to the Reuters study, new avenues of funding should open up as more and more people are made aware of lead poisoning and its dangers.

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