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The Environmental Challenges Posed by Lead Pollution

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A challenge that households and communities face is that lead pollution is often invisible, coming into homes through old and worn-out water pipes or through the dust that comes into the home from contaminated soil in the backyard. Unfortunately, people are too often unaware of the presence of lead in their environment until after someone shows symptoms of exposure: a child with cognitive challenges or an adult with kidney damage, for example.

Lead exposure can affect anyone, but children are especially vulnerable. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states clearly that there is no level of lead exposure that can be considered safe for children. Lead exposure can cause cognitive challenges by damaging the brain and nervous system, which can cause developmental delays, learning difficulties, and behavioral issues. It is critical that schools understand the challenges that some of their students might be facing because of lead in their environments. If a child is having behavioral issues or learning difficulties, then lead exposure should be considered as a potential factor. Lead is a heavy metal that can linger in a child’s body for years after exposure, leading to health problems down the road. Adults can experience health problems from lead pollution as well, including high blood pressure, brain damage, miscarriage, and infertility.

Why and how did homes and communities become polluted with lead? The answer depends on a number of factors, but it might be an issue of environmental racism. Many studies have shown that neighborhoods and communities with predominantly Black residents tend to have higher levels of toxic pollutants and heavy metals such as lead. Studies also show that Black children tend to have higher levels of lead in their blood than white children. There is ample evidence that makes it clear that Black families and communities face disproportionate effects from pollution and contamination in their environments. Flint, Michigan is just one high profile example of an issue that is troubling communities across the United States. Indianapolis is no exception. The antidote to environmental racism, of course, is environmental justice.

In late January, the Biden administration announced an executive order that makes environmental justice a part of every federal executive agency’s mission, with the goal of taking on present and historical injustices caused by systemic racism. President Bill Clinton issued a similar executive order back in the 1990s, which has had limited success in improving conditions for African Americans impacted by environmental racism. This new executive order presents another opportunity to put environmental justice at the forefront, but real progress will come only through sustained efforts to continue shining a light on it.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) plays an important role in protecting the environment and public health. The agency recently revised regulations that protect children from lead poisoning. The new rules require water testing at schools, which is an important step but should have been in place long ago. The EPA’s new Lead and Copper Rule (LCR) “strengthens regulatory requirements to better protect children and communities from lead in drinking water,” the agency said. The new regulations also aim to improve testing and early intervention. The EPA’s new LCR states that “to effectively take action to reduce lead in drinking water, [communities] need to know where lead service lines are and what resources are available to help address lead in drinking water.” Community empowerment is a central piece of the EPA’s efforts to reduce and eliminate lead in the water system but will only happen through coordinated efforts at all levels of government.

Other federal agencies have fallen short. On Feb. 17th, the Washington Post reported that the Inspector General’s office released a review of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) that said the federal agency had abandoned its duty to apply its own environmental regulations in East Chicago, Indiana. As a result of their neglect, children living in public housing were exposed to lead contamination. This situation could have been prevented if HUD had followed their own regulations. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that HUD needs to improve its internal processes, such as compliance monitoring and performance assessments for household lead remediation. Beyond improving internal processes, HUD should be held accountable for neglecting the citizens of East Chicago.

The virtual town hall on Feb. 25th will provide critically important information. Representatives from a handful of federal agencies have been invited to join the moderator, Dr. Virginia Caine, Director of the Marion County Health Department, to discuss the lead issue and to raise awareness of various forms of support and financial assistance that are available to help address lead pollution in Indianapolis.

Ben Clark is a PhD student in American Studies and a Research Assistant at the IUPUI Arts & Humanities Institute. For questions or comments please email him at bejclark@iu.edu.

The Greater Indianapolis NAACP Education Committee, the Indianapolis Recorder, the Hoosier Environmental Council and the IUPUI Arts and Humanities Institute and New Americawill host a virtual public forum called “The Dangers of Lead in Homes and Water” on February 25th at 6:00pm. Anyone can attend the town hall-style forum at Facebook.com/IndyNAACP or Facebook.com/IndyRecorder, or you can register online at indynaacp.org to attend via Zoom.

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