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Saturday, February 4, 2023

Environmental injustice in Indianapolis and across Indiana

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Last week, the Flint Water Advisory Task Force published its findings and made recommendations to Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder. It found the lead poisoning suffered by so many of Flint’s predominantly African-American adults and children was an environmental injustice caused by government neglect and disregard. As we look up to our northern neighbor to provide support and sympathy, we also need to address our own lead crisis in Indianapolis and other cities in Indiana. Too many children across the state suffer from elevated blood lead levels and the long-term harms they cause. Like Flint, this problem has the greatest impact on African-American and other young children, and results from the government’s failure to address a known environmental problem.

It is well known that childhood lead exposure causes irreversible developmental injuries. Numerous studies show children with blood lead levels elevated above certain amounts suffer permanent intellectual and physical harm. Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the physician who gained national attention for her research in Flint, states in her study, “Lead is a potent neurotoxin, and childhood lead poisoning has an impact on many developmental and biological processes, most notably intelligence, behavior and overall life achievement.”

Childhood lead exposure comes from three major sources: indoor lead-based paint and dust, outdoor lead in dust and soils, and drinking water. In each of these cases, children in urban areas with industrial histories and highways face the greatest risk. Old housing stock built before 1978, found throughout Indianapolis, Evansville, Gary and other Indiana cities, poses a high and well-known risk. However, more recent studies show Indiana children also face a significant risk from the state’s industrial history. Urban areas with a history of industry face a chronic lead problem that disproportionately harms children of color in irreversible ways. As a consequence of these past operations, lead is present in the dust and soils of Indianapolis. Yet, no attention has been given to addressing it by city or state leaders. The third source of concern we have learned so much about from Flint is drinking water. Fewer children are exposed to lead though these means than the previously mentioned sources, but Flint’s crisis shows how critical it is to protect our drinking water from the lead present in both public and private plumbing.

Indiana has given attention to the issue of lead-based paint in homes and currently receives a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for testing children on Medicaid for elevated blood lead. Unfortunately, the state currently tests less than 40 percent of the children called for under the grant and has no program to address the significant lead risks in the soils and dusts. While childhood lead exposure has decreased over the past 50 years both in Indiana and across the country, these improvements, in no way, lessen the issues faced by the parents and children suffering the irreversible harms lead causes — harms that lead to problems in school, difficulties with employment and, in some cases, violent behavior.

This is Indiana’s environmental justice crisis. In Flint, government officials had knowledge of a problem and failed to address it, in part, because it was not a priority. That failure to prioritize the needs of those community members despite the harms and risks they faced fits a pattern of environmental decision-making in America and in Indiana that subjects all low-income Americans and people of color across income levels to greater environmental risks and harms from pollution than others.

If Indiana wants to address this problem, it must act aggressively in ways the state of Michigan did not. First, it must lower screening levels for lead to conform to the CDC-prescribed level. It is unthinkable that Indiana has failed to set protective levels to keep exposed children safe from the harms lead causes. Next, we need a lead soil and dust remediation program to address the persistent and unaddressed lead contamination that injures thousands of children in Indianapolis and across the state. Finally, since Indiana fails to screen even half of the children required by the CDC, we must increase screening to 100 percent of at-risk children, because their lives matter.

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