Why Lead Needs to Take the Lead in National Conversations

Recently, CHEM 054 students performed a lab that drove fear into the hearts of many: the water lab. Water, seemingly safe and perfectly drinkable, was collected from around the United States and brought to the chemistry building for various testing. And of course, being from Michigan and having brought water from Michigan, I heard more than one reference to Flint. Flint emerged in the national spotlight in 2014 due to the high percentage of lead poisoning cases there. The water was tainted due to the failure of Flint managers to treat it properly with chemicals.

Water filtration systems and chemical treatments seem to do well in removing water’s most harmful trace elements. For example, Philadelphia tests don’t show any harmful amount of lead, even though they do use some of the worst practices in their water tests.

What does threaten Philly families is the lead paint that still remains in many older homes. Philadelphia’s lead-exposure is higher than any of the surrounding urban areas, and is twice the national average.

Even worse, Philadelphia is not alone. There have been thousands of locales across the US that show bloodstream lead levels to be too high. However, they have not attracted the same amount of attention as Flint, and thus have received little to no funding or charitable assistance to combat their problems. Many of these towns, furthermore, are in rural areas with little resources to combat their lead issues, whether they stem from water, paint, or playgrounds.

This issue deserves more attention. Lead paint is not as easily visible as brown tap water. Nor is the problem as easily solved. Lead in paint, constructed materials, and even the soil is very difficult to remove. Even Flint water is still being treated two years later, and neighborhoods in Flint are still suffering. But it is fixable. It’s not as complex as the economy or health care, and it mostly involves material and chemical changes in several communities, along with extra healthcare coverage relating to lead poisoning.

So why does no one combat this issue? Surely making America healthy again should be a priority for local, statewide, and federal governments. The scientific documentary “Cosmos,” hosted by Neil DeGrasse Tyson, reveals some insight on this matter. Clair Patterson, a geochemist in the mid-1900s, was assigned to do research on the age of the Earth. In doing so, he found that lead levels at the time were much higher than lead levels throughout history. He linked this to mental illness and fought for reducing the levels of lead in gasoline, paint, and other manufactured items. At this time in American history, lead in products was highly debated. However, since then there haven’t been many long-term movements against lead and its presence in dated homes and plumbing.

Lead can reduce mental capacity, decrease bone and muscle growth, and even cause seizures at high concentrations. In the bloodstream, it is unsafe at any level, and legislation needs to be passed to protect the forgotten Americans affected by its presence. This needs to start at the local level, since the federal government seems to have more important things to worry about (like bickering about inefficient health care bills and baseless investigations). If the presence of lead in communities is not addressed, these towns will forever suffer and be behind the rest of the nation.

This election, many citizens in rural towns felt they had been abandoned by Washington. Many of them are right. In this case, however, not just jobs are lost, but lives as well.