Lead Poisoning

Lead poisoning in children has been all over the news lately.  Fortunately, modern chemistry has eliminated most lead from the principle sources of environmental lead contamination–paint and gasoline–and that has resulted in significant decreases in the incidence and severity of the problem.

But, let’s not relax and declare victory just yet. As we can seen, there are still communities at risk.  Toddlers 9-72 months, children who’s siblings are diagnosed with elevated blood lead levels, or children with unexplained neurologic symptoms, delayed development, or learning disabilities should be screened, as well as any child who is exposed to old lead based paint or who lives in older housing (no hypothetical concern: 64% of Ocean County homes were built before 1980, `10% before 1950).   Lead exposure has both short and long term effects.

Everyone should be outraged and alarmed by the events uncovered in Flint, Michigan.  Unfortunately, Flint is no isolated outlier.  Here in New Jersey, our political leaders have not been virtuous with respect to environmental lead contamination.  Governor Christie is only the latest to carry on the shameful tradition of diverting money from the Lead Hazard Control Fund into the general treasury to assist in balancing the state books without leveling with restive taxpayers about what is happening.  To add insult to injury, Mr. Christie “pocket vetoed” a bill that included $10 million to improve lead prevention efforts this year; during his tenure little money has been spent on lead exposure prevention.  Since 2004, >$50 million intended for lead prevention has been siphoned away for political expediency.  Thus we still have >5,000 NJ children diagnosed with high lead levels yearly.

This is no political rant and I am not targeting any individual politician or party.  As I mentioned above, this has been a long time bipartisan failure and there is plenty of blame to go around all across the country.  Ultimately, this comes down to us citizens: if we don’t demand that this be a societal priority we can hardly complain if our elected officials fail to do so.

And please don’t pretend that this is somebody else’s problem.  Estimates place annual costs to the US economy at > $50 billion.  Every microgram increase in blood lead lowers IQ by 0.52 points and lowers lifetime earnings by $16,809.  Every $1 investment saves society $24.  And here’s more: recent research demonstrates a clear link between early lead exposure and crime and in particular violent criminal activity.  Any citizen who prioritizes personal or public safety, or is a “traditional law and order voter” should be all over this.

None of us can completely shield ourselves from the effects of lead toxicity.  Like it or not, we are all neighbors in the same community and we are all in this together.  I urge everyone to use the events in Flint as a wake up call.  Let’s make every child’s safety and future success each of our priority and make sure our institutions have the resources to do the right thing here.

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