It may seem like an odd comparison to make, but there is a significant disparity in today’s world between the threat of lead poisoning in our homes and natural environments and how minority communities are at greater risk than others.
Often when the conversation of racial injustice crops up in the United States, significant topics of violence and opportunity costs are brought up first.
Eventually, these debates always lead back to someone asking for verification of “systematic racism.” While it may seem small, lead mitigation is an excellent example of this issue.
There are an estimated 3.6 million American homes with at least one child exposed to significant lead paint hazards.
As far as the total exposure of the United States, current estimates put 170 million Americans alive today that had previously been exposed to high lead levels in early childhood.
As lead is a developmental neurotoxicant, there is an argument for high lead leading to a lower national population IQ, but that may be better explored in a different article.
Why is Race Involved in Lead Poisoning?
Young children are the most vulnerable to lead poising along with pregnant women and their unborn children.
This can be through a variety of different sources, from clawfoot tubs to drinking water to lead paint in older homes. Any house built before 1978 most likely has some part of the structure painted with lead-based paint.
Why does this matter for racial relations? That comes down to housing inequality. This is a systematic disparity in the quality of housing due to economic discrimination.
Usually, people from certain generations, social backgrounds, or of varying races are the ones most likely to be discriminated against.
You have to remember that housing is more expensive the closer you get to where jobs are located. If you are a low-income family, you cannot live close to your work. That means the better the housing, the less likely minorities will be able to make a purchase.
Unfortunately, that also means the homes that minorities are likely to afford, tend to be of lower quality or older builds.
There is plenty of evidence to show that lead poisoning rates are higher in inner cities and low-income minority housing compared to white, affluent and suburban neighborhoods.
The simple fact is children of color and those living in households with lower income below 130% of the federal poverty level (FPL) are at the most risk for exposure to lead more than any other demographic.
How Can We Address this Issue from a Policy Standpoint
Systematic racism is nothing that is going to go away anytime soon. As long as there are disparities in income and the ability to secure safe housing for minorities, there will be ingrained racism.
While the debate around what is or isn’t racism is waged at the dinner tables of America, the wave of younger children exposed to these dangers has not abated. There are no current recommendations for universal lead screening among children.
Keep in mind that every state has rural areas with homes aged well beyond 50 years, and urban environments are well known for low-income housing centers. In other words, the risk will continue.
As of January-May 2020, about 34% fewer U.S. children had been tested than the year prior. This has a lot to do with the repercussions of the global pandemic. People were less willing to visit doctor’s offices, and schools were effectively shut down or moved to remote learning systems.
This actually could be our signal to make an effective change. We have seen proof that schools are excellent vehicles for essential services to the health and well-being of a child.
They provide meals, hearing screenings, and eye exams for students of all backgrounds and social standings.
It may be possible to attack the issue of lead poisoning from the other end of the equation. Instead of trying to destroy systemic racism from the top down, we could approach it from the bottom up.
If we can institute a program similar to the Early Hearing Detection and Intervention Program for babies, we could show clear evidence of who needs help. This then could lead to federal spending on lead mitigation relief.
There is already a program that requires landlords to disclose such information to tenants and a system for free lead hazard inspections. But not all families are given this information until their child is already at elevated lead levels.
Educating not only the community about lead poisoning but also medical providers can be of tremendous help. Nonetheless, a very good solution is to expand Medicaid to cover more children.
Right now, Medicaid covers lead tests as part of the Early and Periodic Screen, Diagnostic, and Treatment benefit. However, that has specific requirements that often get confusing. These benefits are only for children between 24 and 72 months.
That isn’t a lot of help for a child 6-18 years of age, and the CHIP program does not include the same requirement. On top of all of that, different states show varying adherence to Medicaid screening, meaning it is not reliable.
The point is, if you are a minority or low-income child on Medicaid, you will not receive a screen past the age of 6, and that is only if your local services are willing to conduct the test in the first place. Not a great solution.
The Future of Lead Mitigation
Some numerous agencies and organizations recognize the issue of racial disparities in lead-based risks.
Groups like the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Education, and the CDC are all attempting to implement new plans to lower the risk and help mitigate the damage of high lead exposure.
Most states like Maine, Nebraska, Wisconsin, and other areas where homes tend to be older have some form of lead mitigation assistance.
However, we need to have a more effective method of seeing who needs the help the most and how to distribute those funds to the right remedies.
If anything, this problem is only shining a light on the need for broader medical coverage, at least for our children.
While we argue about the benefits and disadvantages of “socialized” medicine, perhaps we can at least ensure our children are safe and secure from something as simple as breathing the air inside their own homes.
We could also stop trying to cut the legs out of government agencies trying to do their work by making their missions political footballs just to score a few points on Sunday morning talk shows.
Surely we can all agree that the simple act of being alive inside our homes should not poison our future population. In the grand scheme of social and racial inequality in the United States, this seems like a solid thread to pull on and make a positive change.
Written by: Emmanuel J. Osemota