Black People Deal With the Impact of Childhood Lead Poisoning Well Into Adulthood

New research reveals a troubling correlation between lead exposure and incarceration

Kaelynn Lott, a resident at the West Calumet Housing Complex who tested positive for lead poisoning dances with her brother.
Kaelynn Lott, a resident at the West Calumet Housing Complex who tested positive for lead poisoning dances with her brother Kash Lott on September 4, 2016 in East Chicago, Indiana. Photo: Joshua Lott/Stringer/Getty Images

This is The Color of Climate, a weekly column from OneZero exploring how climate change and other environmental issues uniquely impact the future of communities of color.

Remember the water crisis in Flint, Michigan? Even though it began in 2014, there are still families there who bathe their children in bottled water warmed on the stove because the tap water remains contaminated by lead. And the majority of people in Flint who have been affected by lead exposure are Black.

Flint’s residents aren’t alone. Several other American cities with large Black populations have experienced widespread problems with lead exposure because of racist housing policies like redlining. In Oakland, 23 schools were found to have at least one tap with lead levels higher than the federal and state standard between September 2017 and March 2018. Detroit in 2017 had the highest rates of lead poisoning in children out of all the cities in Michigan — 8.8% of all children in the city. In one Detroit zip code, the rate reached 22%. In East Chicago, Indiana, residents of a housing project learned in 2016 that they’ve been living on soil that’s had toxic levels of lead for decades. Last year, a report from Case Western Reserve University found that kids in Cleveland had lead poisoning levels that were greater than or higher than those of kids in Flint.

Now, experts are finding that childhood lead exposure has health consequences that have serious impacts on every stage of life.

Another group of researchers at Case Western has been examining the long-term effects of lead exposure on children in Cleveland, where lead paint in old buildings is a major source of lead poisoning. They published their research in late June.

In their analysis of two sets of ninth grade public school students in Cleveland in the 2007–2008 and 2016–2017 academic years, they found that children who had lead poisoning in early childhood suffered the consequences well into their adulthood. These children were 27% less likely to be on track to kindergarten, 16–27% more likely to enter into the juvenile justice system, and 35% more likely to be incarcerated as adults. In both groups of children, Black children made up the overwhelming majority of lead poisoning cases (82% and 73%). Though the authors did not investigate the causes of these correlations in this study, they note that the “long term costs of lead poisoning to society” are known to include “lower lifetime earnings, neuropsychiatric disorders, special educational needs, lower tax contributions, and criminal involvement.”

Robert Fischer, PhD, one of the paper’s co-authors and co-director of the Center on Urban Poverty and Community Development at Case Western, tells OneZero that the kids exposed to lead in Cleveland public schools overwhelmingly tend to be Black.

“The neighborhoods that these kids are being exposed in are clearly the same neighborhoods that were the subject of redlining and then coming forward to disinvestment in properties in those neighborhoods over many decades,” says Fischer. “[It’s] the same neighborhoods that have been seeing the impacts of racism.”

Last year Cleveland started cleaning up its act, but the damage has already been done to Black residents. In July 2019, the Cleveland City Council passed a law that would allow the city to fine landlords who didn’t get properties inspected and certified as lead-safe by March 2021. The city also created a lead screening and testing commission, among other things. A few months later the city received $9.7 million from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to reduce lead poisoning, mainly in the city’s historically Black Glenville area, where 70% of families are considered low-income. Fischer says that cities like Cleveland need to stop depending on children’s lead test results to be the main indicator that there is lead in communities.

“We have to reorient to primary prevention to make sure properties are clean and safe so kids can reside there without that threat,” he says.

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the local pediatrician who first found that thousands of children in Flint had lead poisoning, is likewise studying the effects of lead exposure on kids in the midwestern city. Earlier this month, she told 60 Minutes that the percentage of children needing special education services rose from 15% pre-crisis to 80% after the crisis started. Exposure to lead, which is considered a neurotoxin, can negatively impact cognition and behavior and lead to developmental delays in children. Through a registry that she built, Hanna-Attisha has connected over 2,000 children in Flint who’ve been exposed to lead with services like speech and occupational therapy.

Even though lead poisoning from paint and old pipes is often seen as a problem of yesteryear, it’s still creating issues for Black people all over the country. It affects not only the future of Black communities, but society at large.

“Whether you think it’s an issue of environmental justice, like we do, for kids living in these neighborhoods, which are predominantly African American kids,” Fischer says, “or you think about it from your pocketbook — society, our communities, our systems — are going to incur costs down the road dealing with the bad consequences of lead exposure.”

This problem isn’t exclusive to Flint or Cleveland. Here’s some recent reporting on the lead exposure issues in other cities with large Black populations:

  • In February 2020, research in the International Journal Environmental Research and Public Health showed that Black children have higher lead levels nationwide.
  • In the Guardian, also in February, Nina Lakhani wrote about a Black mother who discovered Philadelphia’s “huge” problem with lead after her son was exposed.
  • And in November 2019, The New Haven Legal Assistance Association brought a class-action lawsuit against the city of New Haven over its implementation of a lead ordinance that they say disproportionately impacted Black and Latinx residents of the city. Mary O’Leary at the New Haven Register covered the suit.

Drew Costley is a Staff Writer at FutureHuman covering the environment, health, science and tech. Previously @ SFGate, East Bay Express, USA Today, etc.

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