How Lead Is Poisoning American Cities
By Ken Hare
Chicago Defender Staff Writer
Predominately an industrial town in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, Flint, Michigan was once home to some of the giants in automobile manufacturing and their cottage industries that dumped tons of corrosive waste into the Flint River for decades. Since the auto industry was the largest employer in town, this never concerned authorities until the decision was made under Republican Governor Rick Snyder’s administration to switch the city of Flint’s water supply from Detroit to Flint’s very own river.
Governor Snyder appointed Emergency Manager (EM), Darnell Earley to oversee Flint while it was under state receivership. The city of Flint was declared insolvent, in part, due to the inability of its poorest citizens, who couldn’t afford higher taxes to pay the pensions of city government retirees. Census data from 2012 reveals that 31 percent of Flint residents live in poverty. In 2011, it would have cost every person in Flint $10,000 to cover the unfunded legacy costs of the city’s public employees.
EM Darnell Earley stated, “There is no money” and as such the city’s “legacy costs” are unsustainable at 30 percent of the city budget. “Therefore, they must be cut one way or another for the city to remain solvent.” In April 2014, in an effort to save millions over the next few years, city and government officials approved switching from Detroit’s treated water to water from the Flint River.
Initially ignored and downplayed was the fact that the corrosive river water caused deterioration of the lead pipes poisoning the water that Flint residents relied upon. Almost immediately, Flint residents began to complain about the water’s foul odor, discoloration, and taste. And several institutions sounded the alarm about the elevated levels of lead and other contaminants in the water, but government officials turned a blind eye insisting that the water was “safe to drink.”
According to MSNBC’s research team, Flint administrators failed to add anticorrosive phosphates to the water to prevent the corrosion of the pipes – at a cost of only about $100 per month.
History Of Lead
Lead is a heavy metal found primarily in the earth’s crust. It can also be found naturally occurring in the environment in trace amounts, in soil, and in some plants. Left undisturbed in its natural state, it poses no significant threat to humans; however, once mined and transformed, lead becomes highly toxic and never loses its toxic potential. Some historians believe lead is the first of the metals to be smelted by man as long ago as 7,000 BC due to its malleability, softness, and ease to extract.
Its earliest domestic use can be traced to Anatolia, Central Asia, where small beads of metallic lead were discovered alongside copper and golden objects between 6500-7000 BC. Initially, there was little demand because its pliability and lackluster was of little use in tool making or jewelry design.
Then over the centuries, its usefulness began to grow for practical purposes like weights, plugs, vessels and solder. With lead being a by-product of silver and gold production, it didn’t begin to catch on until the Roman Empire began to use silver and gold for everyday items.
Rome’s domination of the ancient world was predicated on its massive ore mines and smelters that employed tens of thousands of slaves who produced enough goods for domestic consumption and then for mass distribution. Eventually, the lead could be found in everything Rome’s ruling class came to use including pots, wine urns, vessels for grape juice, makeup, jewelry and also plumbing. Due to lead’s prevalence, a Roman’s daily intake was estimated at 35 to 250 mg/day, according to the National Academy of Sciences.
Rome’s ruling class began to suffer from widespread lead-induced illnesses like gout, kidney failure, hypertension, and dementia. Geochemist, Jerome Nriagu, said in the New England Journal of Medicine that “lead poisoning contributed to the decline of the Roman Empire.”
Lead Into The Water
With a capital budget of $2.1 billion for 2014-18, the Department of Water Management (DWM) is responsible for approximately 4,400 miles of sewer and water lines, which were installed at the rate of 75 miles per year between 1880 and 1930.
In 2012, Chicago established an aggressive schedule to replace at least 880 miles of water mains, and rebuild or reline over 750 miles of sewer mains over 10 years, according to its capital report. Although Chicago reportedly doesn’t have any lead water mains, there’s a reported 400,000 lead service lines that connect homes and businesses to the main water lines throughout the city.
In a class action suit filed two months ago against the city of Chicago, Tatjana Blotkevic, Ilya Peysin and Yakov Yarmove allege that the work Chicago is undertaking to replace water mains and meters is causing elevated and unsafe lead levels in the water traveling through lead service pipes that pour directly into residents’ homes. The suit adds that the City has failed to warn of the dangers of drinking or cooking with Chicago water after the city has completed its work.
The Chicago Defender set out to find who gave the okay to use lead pipes – a well-known neurotoxin since before the late 1800s – in Chicago’s water distribution system?
When asked this question, Gary Litherland, spokesperson for the DWM stated, “I have no idea,” and that “it may have been in the codes.”
By the 1920s, American cities were starting to ban lead pipes. The lead industry mounted an aggressive campaign to change the public’s perception of lead. Spearheaded by the Lead Industries Association (LIA), they sent representatives to speak with local water authorities, federal and state officials and plumbing associations. They sustained their campaign for decades by publishing books and articles and eventually their efforts proved successful. The tobacco industry took a page out of their notebook as they sought to fight criticism of tobacco products as harmful to human health.
The North, South and West sides of Chicago once housed some of the city’s most infamous housing projects: Cabrini Green, Robert Taylor, and Henry Horner, as well as had some of the highest crime rates among juveniles. Completed in the 1960s, these large-scale urban developments not only had lead plumbing but lead-based paint as well.
In the 1970s, at Harvard Medical School, Dr. Herbert Needleman, conducted studies that determined that lead poisoning had long-term complications on children’s behavior, academic success, and aggressiveness. He tested the lead in the bones of 194 juveniles 12 to 18-years-old who had been convicted in the Allegheny County Juvenile Court against 146 students in regular high school who had no behavioral problems.
The results were published by the American Medical Association and found that delinquent children were four times more likely to have elevated concentrations of lead in their bones. “Lead is a brain poison that interferes with the ability to restrain impulses,” and “increases a child’s risk for doing bad things,” according to his report.
As a result of his findings, the Centers for Disease Control, for the first time ever, issued guidelines for the diagnosis and management of lead poisoning in children. The Consumer Product Safety Commission banned lead from interior paints and the Department of Housing and Urban Development removed lead from thousands of housing units around the country.
When asked about the possible connection between lead poisoning in Black and brown children, high school dropout rates and increased crime rates in the Black community, Sharon Ngwen who works in violence prevention among youth, said: “The damage has already been done.”
A Chicago Youth Justice Data Project report shows that 24 percent of high school students with an identified disability and 27 percent of students in the bottom quartile received out-of-school suspensions in 2013-14. And while Blacks represent 37 percent of youth 17 and under, they accounted for over 79 percent of juvenile arrests in 2013-14, the report shows.
Chicago’s former water commissioner, Tom Powers announced his resignation on April 7, 2016, in anticipation of the city starting a citywide lead testing program. Despite his sudden resignation, city officials are adamant that Flint could never happen in Chicago. “To protect all of Chicago’s residents, throughout the city, and in every neighborhood, the Department of Water Management has a robust anti-corrosion program in which phosphate is added to the water and forms a coating on any lead pipes, inhibiting the lead from leaching into the water,” says a Water Dept. spokesperson.
The city is currently replacing old water lines across town. According to the filed lawsuit, “usually, after pipes have been replaced, there is an increase in the lead in the water due to old coating in the pipes being disturbed.” Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency has set the maximum contaminant level for lead in drinking water at zero. But health experts advise, “Don’t boil the water; this only concentrates lead. Let your water run a few minutes if it’s been sitting in the pipes for a few hours and invest in a good filter that can filter out the lead and other contaminants.”
“Additionally, any resident of Chicago that is concerned about the quality of their tap water can have it tested for free by calling 311,” says Litherland, the city’s spokesman.
“What is ironic,” says Dr. Needleman “is the fact that during Roman times lead poisoning was primarily a disease of the affluent, while today it is an affliction of primarily the poorer communities.”