Lead Poisoning: Biological Warfare and Environmental Racism

“We shoot them full of holes and fill ‘em full of lead.” This iconic quote from Stanley Kubrick’ 1987 film Full Metal Jacket is eerily applicable to the lives of countless low income families across the United States. However, no firearms are necessary to carry out this silent, slow-moving massacre.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that this lethal weapon is unsafe even at the lowest levels, and it makes its way into your body by swallowing it, absorbing it through your skin, or inhalation. Lead will lie in wait, concealing itself in the hollow interior of your bones for decades. And while life carries you from day to day, lead provides a slow drip of exposure to your body as it leaches from your bones. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), lead can be found in numerous places including drinking water, gasoline, batteries, paint, ceramics, and piping materials. The slow wrath of long-term lead exposure can inundate victims with a variety of irreversible adverse health effects such as abdominal pain, heart and kidney disease, high blood pressure, depression, forgetfulness, irritability, and infertility. The consequences are even more severe for juveniles; those who experience prolonged contact with lead may suffer from convulsions, comas, and death. A 2015 study published on the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences website noted that lead exposure could cause changes in gene function that span multiple generations.

Lead — when left unchecked — transforms itself into a dangerous biological weapon. Worst of all, this weapon can be made into a targeted tool relatively easily. Across the United States, demographics patterns in race and income level predict blood lead levels with disturbing accuracy. Because of lead’s ability to infiltrate disproportionately, only specific socioeconomic groups and communities solidifies it as a legitimate weapon of biological warfare. Although Flint’s ongoing water crisis was highly publicized by national news media, America’s lead problem extends far beyond the tainted confines of this Michigan city. A 2016 Reuters study found that there are 3,000 regions across the United States with lead poisoning levels higher than those in Flint. As a result, the residents of countless localities are left alone to battle the dangerous and long-term effects of prolonged lead exposure.

Our nation’s most vulnerable populations are at the greatest risk for exposure to this dangerous environmental hazard. In 2017, Health Affairs reported that “the majority of federally-assisted housing is clustered in low-income, segregated areas at high risk of lead poisoning.” Health Affairs also noted that Black children are three times more likely than white children to suffer from increased blood lead levels. Countless studies, journals, and articles have come to the same conclusion; a 2016 article in Workers World noted, “Lead poisoning hits African Americans the hardest.” According to a study from Harvard University researchers, rates of high blood lead toxicity top 90 percent in some Black and Hispanic neighborhoods. The researchers boldly declared that these disparities in blood lead levels have resulted in “ecological inequality,” through which “racial inequality literally gets into the body.” The CDC calls lead poisoning — the same substance wreaking havoc on millions of brains and bodies in the United States — “the most preventable environmental disease of young children.” If lead poisoning is so preventable, then why does it remain such a lethal threat for millions of Americans? Even more critically, why are Black and Brown Americans at such heightened risk? The impact of lead poisoning extends beyond the body and brain — and into classrooms, workplaces, and jail cells. According to a Duke University study, lead exposure harms intelligence and cognitive ability. “The higher the blood lead level in childhood, the greater the loss of IQ points and occupational status in adulthood,” researchers concluded. Every 5 microgram increase in blood lead levels equated to a 1.5 point drop in IQ points. The study also showed that lead exposure caused a reduction in occupational standing by age 38. The Justice Policy Institute reported that kids exposed to lead receive lower test scores, and are more likely to be suspended from schools. For years, scholars have also suggested that lead exposure increases crime rates and may have contributed to the sky-high crime rates that defined the 1980s and '90s. The Brookings Institution describes the so-called “lead-crime hypothesis” as: childhood lead exposure causes ADHD, learning disabilities, and impulse control problems. These cognitive issues result in violent acts later in life. Experts have concluded that lead exposure correlates so strongly with crime, that it should be taken into account in cases of juvenile delinquency. It’s undeniable. Look at the disparities in health. Look at the achievement gaps in our schools, and the disproportion in our justice system. Lead exposure has systematically inflicted harm on America’s disadvantaged populations for decades. Black and Brown folks have not always been able to rely on the government for protection. Consider the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment or the fact that many of the highest risk areas for lead poisoning coincide with regions of federally assisted housing. Because specific demographics are seldom afforded adequate defense from such environmental threats, we must make ourselves responsible for equipping vulnerable populations with the tools necessary for self-protection. The American Academy of Pediatrics reports that “prevention is the optimal treatment,” for lead exposure. Because we know where lead is found and how poisoning typically occurs, eradication of this chronic illness is not out of reach. The Mayo Clinic provides a simple checklist of steps to keep your family safe from this biological threat.

About the Author

Niara Savage is a Fisk University student and a political correspondent for The Nashville Voice online newspaper. Her debut novel, The Killing of Gregory Noble, was published in 2018 and explores American police brutality. She is passionate about social justice issues relating to education and healthcare, and plans to pursue a PhD in clinical psychology.