Lead Poisoning: Preventable & Irreversible

By Rose King

“Flint’s water crisis is not going to define us as a community,” said Mott Foundation President Ridgway White. “What people need to see and remember is how we respond to the crisis, which is with the same resilience and determination that’s fueled the forward momentum seen in Flint over the last decade.”

Long before the Flint, Michigan story hit national headlines, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, an IS member, had been working tirelessly in Flint. When challenges arose, it redoubled efforts to help bolster communities and kick start the economy. For example, in the late 1980s, General Motors shut down several factories, letting go of thousands of blue-collar workers. Many left Flint. Those who stayed experienced a steady decline as violent crime, drugs, and gang activity ravaged the city.

The Mott Foundation helped residents face these challenges head on – just as did it with the recent water crisis. On October 8, 2015, it committed $4 million to help the community return to the Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA) system, pending the completion in 2016 of a new water pipeline from Lake Huron. With an additional $2 million from the City of Flint and $6 million from the State of Michigan, the city successfully reconnected to the GLWA system on October 16. The Mott Foundation also made a $100,000 grant to the United Way of Genesee County to help provide residents with free water filtering systems.

The Mott Foundation is providing major support for organizations that are addressing lead exposure among Flint children. It has been one of the main drivers and financial supporters of the city’s Health & Wellness District. This has included more than $11 million to expand the local presence of the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine and its public health research program, as well as $1 million to help locate the new Hurley Children’s Center above the Flint Farmers’ Market. The Foundation also supported the market’s move to its new downtown location. That funding helped position these anchor institutions to respond to the public health crisis in critical ways, including coordinated efforts to prevent the long-term effects of lead exposure among Flint’s youngest residents, and helping families incorporate healthy nutrition as an integral part of their children’s health care.

Exposure to lead can harm adults and youth but the latter are particularly susceptible because their brains aren’t fully developed. Even a small amount of toxin can disrupt and alter its growth. Lead poison has been linked to learning disabilities, violent behavior, hearing loss, muscle weakness, kidney problems, and damage to the central nervous system.

Despite common belief, lead poisoning remains a persistent problem across the nation. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that some 500,000 children, ages 1-5, have high levels of lead in their blood. Researchers have uncovered a disturbing correlation: impoverished communities of color suffered a disproportionate rate of lead contamination.

In May of last year, an investigation by the Chicago Tribune found lead poisoning in more than a fifth of the children in poor Chicago neighborhoods while the “hazard has been largely eliminated in more prosperous neighborhoods.” That wasn’t always the case. In the last two decades, cases of lead poisoning throughout the city had been steadily dropping due, in part, to federal, state, and local funding. The money was used to inspect properties, remove lead paint especially prevalent in homes built before 1950, and raise awareness about lead’s toxicity to children (In 1978, lead-based paint was banned in the US).

But in 2011, government funding began to evaporate. That year President Obama cut the CDC’s budget for lead poison prevention. Congress slashed the numbers further. Chicago received no money from the CDC for three years until 2014, when it awarded $347,000 to fight lead poisoning. That figure was well below the amount – $1.2 million annually – it had received from 2005 to 2010. As money dried up, poor African American neighborhoods in Chicago suffered. They began showing signs of increased lead exposure. Rich communities did not.

Photo: Operation PayDirt

“Some census tracts, smaller geographic areas within neighborhoods, haven’t seen a case of lead poisoning in years,” noted the Chicago Tribune. “But children ages 5 and younger continue to be harmed at rates up to six times the city average in corners of predominantly African-American neighborhoods ravaged by extreme poverty, chronic violence and struggling schools.”

Similar trends can be found nationwide. The CDC reports that “children living at or below the poverty line who live in older housing are at greatest risk” and that “some racial and ethnic groups” are disproportionately affected by lead. They note that nationwide “3 percent of black children compared to 1.3 percent of white children have elevated blood lead levels.” An analysis by the Huffington Post found much the same. On average, they found that “black children were 1.6 times more likely to test positive for lead in their blood than white children.”

Nationwide data on lead exposure is limited. Some cities and states do no report lead poisoning at all. Nonetheless, African American children in Savannah, Georgia, Montgomery and Birmingham, Alabama, Detroit, Michigan and elsewhere have experienced a higher level of risk exposure compared to their white peers.

Coast to coast, organizations in the social good space are working to upend this trend and prevent lead poisoning everywhere. Among them is Operation Paydirt, founded by artist Mel Chin in 2006. Shortly after Hurricane Katrina tore up the Gulf Coast, he traveled with artists to New Orleans to see how they could help. Eventually Chin learned that a large percentage of inner-city children had been poisoned by lead before the storm. As a result, he launched Operation Paydirt to raise awareness, help prevent lead contamination, and end childhood lead poisoning.

Fundreds created for an Operation Paydirt program on a pallet. Photo: Judy Cooper, New Orleans Museum of Art Operation Paydirt founder Mel Chin launched the fundred exchange as one of their many programs designed to “provoke empathy and propel knowledge” by engaging children on the subject of childhood lead poisoning.

Operation Paydirt is a multidisciplinary campaign that includes, among other things, animated videos written by Chin. Without words, they describe potential toxins in the home and how to avoid exposure. Because lead is invisible, conveying the idea that poison might be lurking on walls, in soil, or on toys was particularly challenging. The videos help families see these invisible hazards.

“Since 2006 and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, artist Mel Chin and Operation Paydirt have been engaging communities to prevent lead poisoning,” said Robert L. Lynch, president and CEO of Americans for the Arts. “They demonstrate how artists can be game-changers, helping us to see problems, educating all of us, and organizing for solutions.”

Operation Paydirt also launched a program in which children draw a “Fundred,” on a blank template of a $100 bill. Doing so enables them to create their own cash to donate to the cause. Fundreds symbolize the “collective will to end childhood lead poisoning” and offer a vehicle to talk with children about the value of human lives. Chin encourages youth to consider “another kind of money…the value of human expression, the value of knowledge, where children know why they are drawing a Fundred, and they can share that with others.”

He added, “It cannot only provoke empathy, but also propel knowledge. The important thing about the Fundreds is to engage the voices of those that are most affected, yet have the least say in the matter.”

To date, some 450,000 individuals have created Fundreds. Operation Paydirt intends to send them to Capitol Hill to represent each child and adult in a tangible way as well as the collective desire to have legislative and policy reform on lead contamination.

Types: Blog
Global Topics: Arts, Culture, and Humanities, Education, Environment, Ethics and Accountability, Health and Human Services, IS Board, IS Member, ISQ, Public Policy