Kara Eastman, Omaha Healthy Kids AllianceWe’ve just witnessed a massive public health disaster in which the residents of Flint, Mich., including every one of 8,000 children, have been exposed to lead in the city’s drinking water. The communal response, which initially was muted, is now much louder because President Obama declared a state of emergency, some demanded that prosecutors file charges against Michigan’s governor, and Hillary Clinton referred to Flint’s crisis during the last Democratic Party presidential election debate. The issue continues to make headlines in national news media.

I find it abhorrent that city, county and state officials, including public-works and health staff, had knowledge that the water was contaminated and did nothing to stop it. Public officials have a duty to defend the health and safety of the population, no matter the cost to their office or career.

As an advocate who has been working in lead-poisoning prevention for almost 10 years in Omaha, Neb., I can tell you that while not all cities have issues as major as Flint’s, all cities do have homes built before 1978, the year lead-based paint was banned from residential use. According to the Centers for Disease Control, “approximately 24 million housing units have deteriorated leaded paint and elevated levels of lead-contaminated house dust. More than 4 million of these dwellings are homes to one or more young children.”

For children living in these homes, the daily, routine exposure to lead can cause brain damage, IQ deficits, behavioral problems and, later in life, even criminal behavior. An amount of lead equivalent to three grains of sugar is enough to poison a child. Researchers have found that even low levels of lead can cause significant issues in children. Researcher Bruce Lanphear notes, “Existing data indicate that there is no evidence of a threshold for the adverse consequences of lead exposure.” To be blunt, even in the U.S., there are still many homes that are poisoning our children with lead.

In my work, I have the honor of leading a team of people who help low-income families to identify lead and other hazards in their homes. However, lead affects all children, not just those living in poverty in our cities.

Readjusted Thinking

Rick Reibstein, an environmental attorney in Boston, says, “If you have always thought that lead poisoning is a problem restricted to poorly maintained homes in which the paint can be seen peeling off the walls or to hungry children eating chips of paint because the lead tastes sweet, you need to re-adjust your thinking: Lead poisoning occurs across all economic strata.”

For example, in one home of an affluent family in Omaha, a child who slept in an antique crib began teething on the sides of the crib and ended up needing emergency medical treatment for lead poisoning. In another case, twin babies were placed in two separate cribs, one near the window and one against the wall; the one near the window ended up with a high lead level just from breathing the lead-laden dust that blew through the window every night. When it comes to poisoning children, lead does not discriminate.

Like many other cities and states in the U.S., the city of Omaha has a lead-poisoning prevention program. Through this program, lead hazards are mitigated in about 30 homes a year, thanks to funding from the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development. It costs about $10,000 for each home.

This great program is invaluable, as is the Dept. of Housing and Urban Development funding (which, by the way, has been decreasing). Yet, Omaha has 84,000 homes built before 1978, and many of those are in moderate to severe disrepair. However, this issue is not confined to only urban areas.

Even worse, all our elected and appointed officials are aware of the continuing harm to children from lead, yet we have not been brave enough to implement the solution.

We know what causes lead exposure, and we know how to fix the problem. It is time we all admit what we know and work together, expanding the programs we have and adding new ones, so that we do not willingly poison children—or anyone—in their homes. 

Kara Eastman is chief executive of Omaha Healthy Kids Alliance, an award-winning nonprofit organization that has raised $8 million to support health housing for children in the Omaha area. She can be reached at kara@omahahealthykids.org.

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