A smelter, in East Helena, Mt.,seen in a 2001 photo, was shut down and became a Superfund site.

Editor’s Note: Christopher Sellers is a professor of history at Stony Brook University who also trained as a physician He is co-editor of “Dangerous Trade: Histories of Industrial Hazard across a Globalizing World,” and is author of a forthcoming history of the lead and petrochemical industries in Texas and Mexico. Jay Turner is an associate professor of environmental studies at Wellesley College. He is working on an environmental history of the lead-acid battery industry in the United States and beyond. The opinions expressed in this commentary are theirs.

Story highlights

Authors: Lead continues to pose health dangers to millions of Americans

Though smelters are shutting down, this shift does not translate into a lower demand for lead, authors say

CNN  — 

The impending trial of the Baltimore police involved in the death of Freddie Gray extends the saga of one of the city’s “lead kids,” who suffered the consequences of growing up in a community polluted by lead paint. This past summer, in east central Los Angeles, researchers discovered that a lead smelter has contaminated up to 10,000 homes, leaving the yards so polluted they are potentially unsafe for child’s play. Still more recently, high lead levels turned up among children living around a former lead factory in Philadelphia.

Christopher Sellers
Jay Turner

Together, these stories testify to how America’s problems with lead continue to fester, even as we consume just as much of the toxic metal as 50 years ago. Our current mix of domestic regulatory action, pushing smelting beyond our borders, coupled with empty promises toward the long shadow of the lead industry in our own cities, has kept us on a dark trajectory. It will leave our environment irreversibly damaged and a growing share of our populace permanently afflicted – not to mention the ill effects elsewhere.

To muster the resolve to address these problems, we first need to acknowledge their true scope.

The dangers of lead exposure

Freddie Gray struggled with many challenges during his life, but lead from peeling paint in the places where he lived as a child likely made them worse. According to records from a 2008 lawsuit, filed on behalf of Gray and his two siblings against former landlords, young Freddie had lead levels in his blood as high as 37 micrograms per deciliter and not lower than 11 up to the age of 7. That information alone would be enough for any physician today to diagnose him with childhood lead poisoning, given that the CDC now considers more than 5 micrograms in children’s blood enough to place them at risk.

The results, irreversible brain and nerve damage, can manifest in the very difficulties that bothered Gray from early on: limited attention span, dropping out of school, impulsive aggression, and other behavioral problems that scientists have clearly connected to the neurotoxicity of this noxious metal. Of course, the likely, crippling contributions of this toxic metal to what became a deadly van ride hardly excuse what the police may have done. Yet the earlier lawsuit against the landlords of the Gray family illustrates how hard it has proven to hold anyone accountable for lead’s damages. Defense lawyers invoked all sorts of other possible explanations, from poverty to neglectful parental care.

Black children today remain three times more likely than white counterparts to have highly elevated lead levels. Hence they are far more at risk of succumbing to those psychological and developmental troubles that afflicted the Gray children. Long-standing bans on lead paint mean that toxic housing stock has been gradually shrinking, yet not nearly fast enough for those living in the more than 4 million residences in the U.S. that still pose a threat to young children.

While ambitious state legislation like Rhode Island’s 2005 Lead Hazard Mitigation program has gone a long way toward alleviating these dangers, gaps from lagging enforcement and exemptions, such as the exception this law allows for single-family, owner-occupied properties, still leave many vulnerable.

And even if we clean up all this housing, we’ll still be left with entire generations of the permanently disabled like Freddie Gray. Instead of just awaiting lawsuits, we need to consider more proactive approaches to the problems of former “lead kids.” A victims fund, whether modeled on those for sufferers from asbestos, 9/11, or Agent Orange, could provide a starting point.

Lead’s environmental effects

There are also grave environmental factors to consider. The pollution revealed around the Exide smelter in Vernon, California, this summer is a new, but familiar, chapter in Americans’ lead woes. For 33 years, California state regulators allowed the smelter to operate despite a record of air and water quality violations.

Only in the wake of a campaign by local citizen groups did state regulators shut the smelter down and begin investigating the extent of the contamination. Now the most urgent question in Vernon is how to fund a cleanup that may span as much as 2 square miles of dense housing.

It will likely require much more than the $9 million for residential cleanup exacted from last year’s settlement with Exide.

Insufficient funding for such remedies is a familiar story for these and other often impoverished communities that have borne the burden of lead in the United States.

In the past three years, stronger regulatory standards, community activism, and global shifts in the lead trade have contributed to the closing or idling of smelters not just in California but in Pennsylvania, Texas, and Missouri. The problem is that even as we take steps to clean up our own lead industry, we aren’t reducing our demand for lead.

Despite phasing out lead in paint and gasoline in the 1980s, the U.S. still consumes as much lead today as it did in 1970. Almost all of that lead is used in batteries for cars and battery backup systems. Now, as American smelters close, the hazardous work of processing that lead is being taken up by countries where standards for worker, public, and environmental health are lower or less rigorously enforced.

Between 2004 and 2011, for instance, exports of used lead-acid batteries from the U.S. to Mexico grew by 500%. Much of that lead then returns to the U.S. in the batteries of new vehicles. Yet our southerly neighbor’s smelters operate under emissions standards that, up until early this year, were 20 times laxer than U.S. standards. Mexican health experts continue to criticize their government’s lack of commitment to monitoring, penalties or enforcement.

As the case of Vernon makes clear, a single poorly regulated smelter can have devastating and enduring effects on a community. And whether the lead comes from an old smelter or from peeling paint, as Gray’s story reminds us, the toxic consequences can last a lifetime. But so long as we Americans limit ourselves only to shutting down our own smelters and cleaning up our own neighborhoods, we will continue to push the dirty work of recycling this toxic metal – with all its accompanying dangers – to places like Mexico.

While some corporations have taken action, for instance, improving pollution controls at domestic smelters or halting exports of spent batteries to Mexico, the scope of our lead problems demands more than voluntary action or ad-hoc settlements with bankrupt corporations. The U.S., Canada, and, especially Mexico, must follow through on recommendations to raise the bar for the environmental and labor conditions in the lead industry across North America.

We should also consider a policy idea that can address both Mexico’s lead problems and our own: a federal tax on new and imported lead. Americans would gain a clear incentive to cut back their own consumption of the toxic metal. And funds from the tax could finance the many measures that are now necessary to alleviate how lead still plagues our own citizenry, from surveillance and cleanups to health care. Whatever the solutions, we need to face up to the magnitude and multiplicity of our lead woes.

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