We want all our children to be safe and happy — that's why we have safeguards in place to protect them. Newborns are taken home from the hospital in car seats, kindergarteners must have all their vaccines to enter school, even playground equipment is closely regulated. Yet, despite these investments in their health and safety, children are still at risk in their own homes. While we are closer than ever to eliminating lead in homes, it's still all too prevalent, seeping into the lives of our children through peeling paint, unfiltered water from unsafe pipes, and other sources.
Even though lead poisoning is entirely preventable, 535,000 children under the age of six in the United States are exposed to the dangerous toxin each year through water, paint, soil, and other sources. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "at least four million households have children living in them that are being exposed to high levels of lead." Lead exposure can lead to learning disabilities, speech delays, attention deficit disorder, reduced motor control and balance, and aggressive behavior. In fact, kids with lead poisoning are seven times as likely to drop out of school than their non-lead-poisoned peers, are six times as likely to become involved in the juvenile justice system, and as adults face increased risks of cardiovascular disease, hypertension, depression, and early mortality.
When the Flint water crisis became international news, it was easy to brush it aside as an anomaly — something that would never happen in your own town. But in 2016 a report by Reuters found three thousand localities across the country where at least 10 percent of children — double the rate of lead poisoning in Flint at the height of the crisis there — had elevated levels of lead in their blood. In some cities, "the rate of elevated [lead] tests over the last decade was 40 to 50 percent." Many of the affected communities are low-income and majority African-American and Latino populations, a sadly unsurprising fact given the stark racial disparities when it comes to addressing lead poisoning. In fact, African-American children are roughly five times more likely and Latino children nearly twice as likely to be poisoned by lead than their white peers.
The reality is that the "next Flint" is not just imminent; it's already here and is happening in communities across the country. But if community leaders and elected officials make lead poisoning prevention a priority — pass smart legislation, invest in prevention measures in low-income neighborhoods, and educate their communities — we can address the issue in just five years.
Fortunately, a blueprint for lead eradication already exists. Seeing how unhealthy housing has been undermining the health of growing children, we at the Green & Healthy Homes Initiative (GHHI) took action in our home community of Baltimore starting in 1986. Working together with community leaders and local officials, GHHI, then Parents Against Lead, started a grassroots volunteer effort to change public policy and bring funding to older, lower-income neighborhoods in Baltimore to make homes safer for everyone. With the use of techniques like window replacement to remediate lead paint hazards in homes, as well as the dedication and investment from the city and other local organizations, we've seen real progress in making homes across the city safe for all kids, with a 98 percent reduction in childhood lead exposure in Maryland over the last thirty years. GHHI has since expanded its efforts to more than thirty cities to ensure that every child has a healthy and safe home, regardless of zip code or socioeconomic status.
Today more cities and states are passing legislation and dedicating resources to prevent lead exposure, and a growing number of foundations are increasing their financial support for such efforts. In Pennsylvania, which ranks third in the nation for housing built before 1950 — a major risk factor for lead poisoning — Governor Tom Wolf is calling for mandatory lead testing for every infant in the state.
To expand our network of partner organizations, we recently kicked off our national Campaign to End Lead Poisoning by announcing the Lead Poisoning Prevention Catalytic Award and are working with the JPB Foundation to bolster, financially and programmatically, up to five nonprofits stepping up to do what's right for their communities. Both private and public involvement is essential to this fight, and by working together we will ensure that no more children are made sick by their own homes.
With families, schools, and communities all facing numerous challenges, you might ask, "Why lead?" One reason is that the math is on our side, too: Every dollar spent on preventing lead exposure can generate up to a $221 return on investment. The U.S. could save more than $50 billion annually if we act to prevent these devastating health impacts. Investing in lead poisoning prevention will lower healthcare costs and help keep kids in school and out of trouble so that they can reach their full potential.
We need to make the same level of commitment to ensuring that every child in every home is safe from toxins like lead as we do to ensuring that s/he is safe in the car, at school, and on the playground. "Contaminated" is the last word any family wants to hear when it comes to their home, but "contaminated," "dangerous," and "toxic" are words all too familiar to millions of families across the country. It's time to take action and invest in rehabilitating homes across the country to end lead poisoning once and for all.
Ruth Ann Norton is president and CEO of the Green & Healthy Homes Initiative.