Lead poisoning is a public health emergency in poor working class communities across the United States, raising crime rates, causing school dropouts, filling our prisons and creating human tragedy
BISHOP JETHRO JAMES: The Governor’s home, I’ve been there. If this was in his neighborhood, they’d be digging up the streets now, changing the pipes going in. To say to poor people, “Stand in the hot sun.” To say to poor people, “You’re going to get two cases with 24 bottles in it, and I’ll see you next week” is really asinine. Governor, your actions is speaking louder than your words.
MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. Great to have you all with us.
Newark is the latest community to grab the headlines about the ravages of lead poisoning. Newark, Flint, Baltimore, South Bend, Indiana, across this nation, there are at least 3,000 communities with lead poisoning rates that double Flint’s, that match well beyond Newark’s, but they’re not in the headlines. Each time this comes to our attention, most state governments seem to understand that these are public health emergencies. Most of these communities are also ravaged by poverty, and most are communities of color. And as Reuters reported, there are communities like Goat Island, Texas where over 25% of the children had high levels of lead— to Warren, Pennsylvania on the Allegheny River, mostly white working-class community where 35% had levels too high. And in mostly African American communities, that are devastated by abandonment and poverty in cities like Baltimore, Cleveland and Philadelphia, it can be as high as 50% of the people who have been poisoned by lead.
So what is to be done? We are joined by Charles Jackson from the Greater Baltimore Urban League. And Charles, welcome. Good to have you with us.
CHARLES JACKSON: Thank you, Marc. I appreciate you having me.
Please help us make real news!
MARC STEINER: So let’s talk about what your first reactions to these are, I mean this is—We keep seeing city after city. We’ve known about Baltimore’s fight for dozens of years, for decades, and people have been fighting that in this city as well. But then you had Flint that made the headlines and then it became part of the presidential debate, and Marianne Williamson made that great quote about, “It’s more than just—It’s a public health crisis because we don’t take care of things.” And now we have Newark where they give communities two cases of bottled water and expect people to survive with that, so how deep is this crisis? How would you paint it? Is this a public health emergency for our states, cities, and the nation to kind of wrestle with quickly?
CHARLES JACKSON: It is, and when I look at it from a public health standpoint, built environment is a specific indicator of all health disparities. So when we look at the social determinants of health, where you work, live and play, built environment is one of the major contributors of your wellbeing— of how well you will show up to work if you have a job, how well you will show up to school if you’re a child. And so we look at these things especially with prevention around children and lead paint. Well, if you have a cognitive issues, you can’t function. And we know this exacerbates issues as you get older. So it is, yes, it is a major public health issue.
MARC STEINER: I’m going to come to that. The clip I want to play you, but this is a clip from MSNBC with Brian Williams who was grilling Governor Murphy of New Jersey.
GOVERNOR PHIL MURPHY (D-NJ): With an abundance of caution, we have gone aggressively to distributing bottled water, opening up testing to I believe many hundreds of different data points.
BRIAN WILLIAMS, MSNBC: Do you believe this is a public health crisis?
GOVERNOR MURPHY: It’s a public health challenge for sure. And this notion that we’re doing something differently in Newark that we wouldn’t do elsewhere is completely baseless.
BRIAN WILLIAMS: Are you telling me that the folks who are well off in Middletown would be waking up all of these mornings trying to have to scrounge for 16 ounces at a time of clean water for cooking and drinking and all of their daily needs, the same as the folks in Newark are?
GOVERNOR MURPHY: We do nothing different in Middletown that we’re doing in Newark. I promise you that. The other comment I would make is this is an American crisis. We have a big water infrastructure crisis and we need the federal government to step up in a big way.
MARC STEINER: So I mean, the question is when you watch a clip like this—I mean, I think he’s right, the governor. He said at the end of his statement, which is, “This is a national emergency and the government should step up and we shouldn’t hold our breath that this federal government will to step up to anything.” But the reality is that is a public health crisis. So how do – how should governments respond to this, whether it’s Maryland’s government or Missouri’s government or Indiana’s government or New Jersey’s government?
CHARLES JACKSON: So that is the million dollar question. So it has two prongs. So you said there’s a local approach— and all politics are local— and then there’s the national approach.
MARC STEINER: Right.
CHARLES JACKSON: So one of the things that each jurisdiction has to think about is disaster preparedness before it happens. Prevention before these issues take place. So we for example, so yes, we already know in Baltimore that the lead paint issue is there. And luckily we have a government locally that has a child prevention task force that is specifically working on that. Our numbers have gone down drastically because they have put forth a concerted effort early to work on these issues. But every, every city is not like Baltimore. Every state is not like Maryland. And so if we’re not thinking about this as really a natural disaster waiting to happen, as certain areas are already happening, then we won’t tackle the issue as a crisis. I believe the governor said it’s a challenge. It’s definitely past a challenge in many of these issues, particularly because we’re dealing with people of color and not only people of color, but people who are also poor. And so it’s very interesting when he made the comment that we’re dealing with the issue the same in both places because unfortunately when we’re looking at equity, both places may not have the same exact issue. Both cities, Newark and the second city that he was discussing.
MARC STEINER: So when you look at this, do you see it as a challenge as the governor said, or do you see it as an emergency? I mean, when you’re talking – because what we’re facing here are communities, old communities that were built with lead paint that were built with lead pipes going into the house, and they’re still happening in places like Baltimore that kids are being poisoned by lead every day. So it hasn’t been resolved. So do you see this as a public health emergency?
CHARLES JACKSON: It is definitely a public health emergency because again, all of these things compound on top of each other. So if you’re in a built environment that is full of lead paint or water that’s full of lead, you’d send children to school, they have cognitive issues. Sometimes it’s been shown, studies talk about children who have lead issues also have disciplinary issues. This now affects possibly the political, justice issues that take place in the city. So it’s not just, again, I know he said the word challenge, but in my opinion it’s a crisis.
MARC STEINER: Let’s pick up on what you just said and we had this clip that was done in an interview here at The Real News with Dr. Lawrence Brown who’s come to The Real News numerous times, interviewed here about this lead crisis a little while back, and I think he pointed out some of what you’re saying here. Let’s watch what Lawrence Brown had to say. He’s Associate Professor of Health over at Morgan State University.
DR. LAWRENCE BROWN: You know, these impacts that have been mentioned are very disconcerting. You know, lead impacts everything from cognitive impairment, behavioral issues, and creates that – the propensity towards violence is elevated. It’s associated with ADD and ADHD. It’s even associated in some studies with elevated levels of depression disorder and panic disorder. And not only do we have that crisis, which is subsiding, but it’s the low-level lead poisoning below 10 micrograms per deciliter lead in their blood where we could have as many as 200,000 children who have been poisoned since 2000.
MARC STEINER: Which is a lot of children. And we saw – what he said earlier in this narrative was that Freddie Gray, who we all know, we’re all too aware of what that case was. And he had a 36% rate of lead in his blood. And he mentioned several other cases and like that. So I mean, this is so this calls to me. It says there’s a couple of levels here. Let’s talk to them. One has to do with specifically with this: if we know that a lot of the children who were poisoned by lead have cognitive issues, that leads to lower test scores and difficulty even in staying in school, leads to issues of violence and short tempers because you can’t control your tempers.
I’ve interviewed kids with lead poisoning almost crying because they can’t control when they were angry. They don’t want to be angry and they just, they know it’s going to happen to them. So how do we respond to this? I mean, this is—I mean, we have, what is it? Some people have said between 15% and 50% of the people in prisons are lead poisoned. So how do we respond to this socially and politically?
CHARLES JACKSON: Well—
MARC STEINER: Economically?
CHARLES JACKSON: And so, one of the things that I look at is, okay, there’s prevention, but now what do we do after the fact?
MARC STEINER: Right.
CHARLES JACKSON: And so, I look at the infrastructure. So what rules and regulations are put into place around testing, particularly for children. The second portion of that is, again, looking at the built environment around it. So we really have to look at the infrastructure of how cities are crafted. Where you’re living, this plays a big part, specifically for cities like Baltimore. So if you are in a food desert or healthy food impoverishment zone, as they’re now known as, and there—
MARC STEINER: Healthy food impoverishment [crosstalk]
CHARLES JACKSON: And I’m saying it incorrectly. So I’m sure someone will write in and tell you that, but it’s healthy food zones or something like that. That’s the new term that’s being said. But if in those zones, formerly known as food deserts, if there’s only a fast food restaurant around—
MARC STEINER: Right.
CHARLES JACKSON: That also is an issue because things like healthy foods, fruits and vegetables, leafy greens, actually help rid your system of the lead that’s there. But if you’re already in an older home that has lead issues, and then you’re in a built environment or neighborhood that has no healthy food, we have to look at these things in multiple ways of prevention, but also the built environment in order to work on these issues. And then, looking at the future and around what’s going to take place. We see in older cities that now water is an issue. Well, if the water and the infrastructure is an issue, if you’re not working on it, then you have issues that happened in Newark where bottles of water being passed out and you have to wait another week to get more.
MARC STEINER: So if you are responding to the crisis, let’s say in Newark—
CHARLES JACKSON: Yeah.
MARC STEINER: What should the response be? Two cases of water a week? That’s the response?
CHARLES JACKSON: Cases. Which, that—I’m sorry, I just have a visceral reaction to that because I think about, okay, that’s washing your body and that’s also being able to wash dishes and—
MARC STEINER: The clothes [crosstalk 00:10:41] and having water for you and your children.
CHARLES JACKSON: Exactly. So think about how much water we actually use—
MARC STEINER: Right.
CHARLES JACKSON: On a daily basis.
MARC STEINER: Right.
CHARLES JACKSON: I could go through two cases myself.
MARC STEINER: I’ve had two glasses here before we even started this interview.
CHARLES JACKSON: Exactly. I could go through two cases myself. So in cases like Newark, this is really where everyone will have to work together in order to be able to work on the issue. And sometimes that means also getting outside help. There’s organizations like Black Millennials for Flint. Will Smith’s son has literally put up water filtration systems or water systems in different cities where people can actually go to them. So this is sometimes where I know that cities oftentimes look within, but sometimes it may be a without look as well to be able to really get some of the needs met quickly because cities unfortunately can’t do everything themselves.
MARC STEINER: So, no they can’t. I mean, given where most cities are on this country, and I think that. So what is the – how do you respond to this? What I’m asking specifically is, A, it seems to me you have to do some massive rehabilitation in people’s neighborhoods to get rid of lead and lead paint and the lead pipes, and replace all of those and, and/or move people out into decent housing where they’re not worried about lead paint and lead poisoning. That’s A. And B, they’re the social consequences.
CHARLES JACKSON: Yeah.
MARC STEINER: How much – what do we have to do? What do we have to spend to ensure that young people who are poisoned by lead, as they become adults, are taken care of? I mean these are huge, massive amounts of money for both these things.
CHARLES JACKSON: And unfortunately, when you don’t take care of something beforehand, you have to take care of it afterwards and you end up having to spend more money. So I don’t know what that exact number looks like. Each city is different, but you are 100% correct. Newark is going to have to do all of those things in conjunction with each other and governmental organizations and public health organizations and community organizations, faith-based organizations, are really going to have to work together in order to be able to get that information out around what is being done. Transparency, it’s needed. As we’ve seen, it was unfortunately was not the case in Newark. And then also getting—If it’s a public health issue, in my opinion, public health officials should be leading the charge, not those who are not subject matter experts on the issue.
MARC STEINER: So what lessons do you learn from the work you’ve done, for the rest of the country?
CHARLES JACKSON: Oh, goodness. So working around the country, awareness on the local end is key. Now, each disparity is different. I’ve worked— whether it’s been on HIV or immunizations or cancers— always the key has been awareness. Having – letting the public know what the issue is and how to change it. The second portion has always been, once you’ve made people aware of what’s going on, then giving them the opportunity or the space to be able to become healthier. And so in regard to lead, again, we look at, I keep on getting back to it, but that built environment is key. And I know you said something about, can we move people out of their locations—
MARC STEINER: Right.
CHARLES JACKSON: And bring them back? Unfortunately, if we do that, we’ve seen cases in certain cities that when you move people out, they’re not able to come back in once the issue has been fixed because that’s when the gentrification sometimes happens. Because when people see a vacant space and say, well, you know what? This is a space that’s in a nice area. It’s close to downtown. You know what? We need to revitalize this, or urban renewal. So it has to be looked at from an equity lens as well, as what are the needs of those people who are in need right now. And if it’s multiple cities or multiple neighborhoods that are affected, which neighborhood needs are met, excuse me, which neighborhoods have XYZ needs right now?
Because each neighborhood may be different. Again, for example, in Baltimore you may treat Roland Park a little bit differently than you treat Cherry Hill. Needs are not the same.
MARC STEINER: So, you know, just to mention those neighborhoods. It was like where they talked about the Governor of New Jersey. You talked about two Baltimore neighborhoods— Cherry Hill being poor and black, and Roland Park being mostly white and really wealthy— and how we treat these neighborhoods very differently. So are you – what about policy changes to address these issues? I mean, that seems to be the crux of the issue.
CHARLES JACKSON: Yes. I would really like to see, on the local level as well as the federal level, money set aside for research in regard to lead issues. But then also money set aside for implementation around how to make communities aware of the issue and also how to take care of the issue on the back end. Around after you get testing, what are your steps being able to take families through the process of getting their needs met? And each family may be different. So if that is some type of fund specifically for those who have an elevated lead level, then so be it. It has to be on the macro and the micro level in order to be able to take care of this issue. And of course, on the bigger end, cities are going to have to really build up their buildings as well as their water systems in order to stop the issue.
MARC STEINER: Charles Jackson, it’s good to see you. Thanks for dropping by the studio.
CHARLES JACKSON: Thank you.
MARC STEINER: And good to have you with us here at The Real News.
CHARLES JACKSON: Thank you, Marc.
MARC STEINER: And I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thank you for joining us. Let us know what you think. Take care.