Lead Poisoning in Black Communities: History and Consequences

According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2020, approximately 2.6 million families in the United States were at risk of lead poisoning due to the presence of lead-based paint in their homes. While this statistic may seem shockingly high, what is even more alarming is the fact that most of the families at risk for lead poisoning each year are black families.

Research conducted on the subject for many years has shown that lead poisoning disproportionately affects black families – especially black children – in the United States.

Below, we will explore the history of institutionalized and environmental racism, and how policies influenced by these types of racism lead to increased health problems in Black communities.

To understand why black communities are disproportionately affected by negative health effects, including lead poisoning, it is important to first understand how institutionalized racism has led to serious health problems within communities. most vulnerable communities.

After the onset of the Great Depression in 1929, the United States found itself in the midst of a housing crisis. With many businesses unable to build new homes or complete old ones, and homeowners around the world facing mortgage defaults, the housing market has come to a screeching halt.

In an effort to alleviate the housing crisis, the government established the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) in 1934 to oversee policies related to funding, standards, and employment in the housing industry. As part of its role in administering mortgages, the FHA created the “Underwriting Handbook,” which outlined the regulations and procedures that all lending institutions were required to follow.

In the “Underwriting Manual”, the quarters have been separated into categories according to:

  • Occupation
  • Income
  • race and ethnicity

According to the manual:

  • Quarters A (green) were racially homogeneous (people sharing the same characteristics based on the categories described), in high demand and constantly improving.
  • Quarters B (blue) were still desirable to live there, but they were not expected to improve.
  • Quarters C (yellow) were considered to be declining in value.
  • Quarters D (red) were considered the most undesirable neighborhoods, many of which were predominantly black.

With the creation of this neighborhood rating system came the term “redlining”, in which mortgage appraisers separated “less desirable” neighborhoods on the map with a red line. In turn, lenders would not approve mortgages in these “red” areas – creating a disparity that led to the rapid decline downtown neighborhoods.

Because of this form of institutionalized racism, thousands of black communities across the United States have been disproportionately affected by the negative impact of environmental racism.

Environmental racism is the result of institutional policies that expose a disproportionate number of minority communities to environmental risks.

According to Literature, factors such as development and municipal policies, facility site planning, and even land use patterns can lead to this form of racism. Environmental racism is particularly prevalent in black communities due to historical segregation and household segregation.

Due to institutionalized and environmental racism, communities in “unwanted” neighborhoods are often exposed to environmental pollutants from places such as:

  • highways
  • dumps
  • waste sites
  • even chemical plants

Additionally, many homes in these neighborhoods eventually decline, often leading to exposure to other environmental toxins inside the home.

An increased prevalence of lead poisoning in black communities, particularly among black children, is an unequivocal example of environmental racism.

In 2013, the CDC released a report blood lead levels in children aged 1 to 5 years, noting that children with a blood lead level of 5 micrograms per deciliter (µg/dL) or higher were at risk of serious adverse effects on health.

According to the report, Mexican American children had the lowest average blood lead levels, at 1.9 µg/dL, followed by non-Hispanic white children at 2.4 µg/dL. However, the highest average blood lead levels were in non-Hispanic black children at 5.6 µg/dL, more than twice the average blood levels found in white children.

In the report, poor housing quality, unsafe environmental conditions, poor diet and other factors were all cited as reasons for the increased risk of lead poisoning – and unfortunately, many of these factors are the direct result. institutional policies that negatively affect black communities.

Indeed, in recent years, the unsanitary water situation which happened in Flint, MI, – which has a population i.e. 57% black and 42% below the poverty line – is a prime example of how these institutional policies can impact communities that experience lower socio-economic conditions.

Although Flint has since addressed the horrific ordeal he inflicted on his citizens, millions of black families and children across the United States are still at risk of lead poisoning – and not just because of contaminated drinking water.

According to CDCsome of the other common ways children are exposed to lead include:

  • paint chips or dust containing lead
  • lead-contaminated soil dust from certain industries
  • traditional cultural products, such as medicines and cosmetics
  • certain consumer products
  • parents or adults who bring home lead from certain industries

So how can you tell that a person has been exposed to dangerous levels of lead?

Unfortunately, lead exposure and lead poisoning can often appear asymptomatic or even mimic other health conditions, which can sometimes make diagnosis difficult.

However, some common symptoms of lead exposure to watch include:

If you are concerned that you or a loved one have been exposed to lead or are showing symptoms of lead poisoning, make an appointment with your doctor immediately to have your blood lead checked.

Consequences of lead poisoning in children

While lead poisoning is a condition that can have negative effects in both children and adults, children are more susceptible to the harmful effects of lead exposure.

In children, levels as low as 10 µg/dL caused the following effects symptoms:

  • retarded growth and physical development
  • impaired development of the brain and nervous system
  • learning difficulties
  • decreased hearing ability
  • speech development problem
  • behavior problems at home and at school

At higher levels of lead exposure, lead toxicity can lead to:

And in the long term, the health consequences of childhood lead exposure can even impact a person’s health in adulthood, leading to an increased risk of:

Although we know that lead poisoning disproportionately affects some communities in the United States, there are some states in which children have blood lead levels much higher than the national average.

According to CDC, in 2018, the national average for all children with blood lead levels above 5 µg/dL was 2.6%. However, states that had a higher percentage than the national average included:

  • Connecticut: 3.6%
  • New Hampshire: 3.7%
  • Missouri: 3.9%
  • Indiana: 4.0%
  • Louisiana: 4.2%
  • Ohio: 4.4%
  • Iowa: 4.5%
  • Kansas: 4.7%
  • New York: 4.7%
  • Vermont: 5.1%
  • Maine: 6.0%
  • Pennsylvania: 6.6%
  • Wisconsin: 6.6%

Increases risk factors in these states are the most likely explanation for the large disparity between different states.

These include:

  • higher number of low-income households
  • dwellings built before 1978
  • other risk factors related to institutional policies

When it comes to institutional and environmental racism in the United States, the importance of immediate change cannot be understated.

Millions of black people and other historically marginalized communities in the United States are still disproportionately affected by the impact of these forms of racism.

While it is helpful to continue to screen populations most at risk for lead poisoning, it is also important that national, state, and local governments are held accountable for the policies they adopt.

As a country, that starts with not allowing neighborhood segregation, ensuring that black communities receive the funding they need to create safe, long-term living conditions, and reducing community exposure. historically marginalized to other forms of environmental toxins.

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