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Lead Astray: Environmental Regulation and Racism

Perhaps the most defining characteristic of racism in the United States is its pervasiveness. It goes beyond personal attitudes and seeps into almost all institutional functions. Environmental policy and regulation is subject to these same discriminatory pressures, which fueled the rise of an environmental justice movement. This movement started in the 1980s and was largely in response to the dumping of toxic soil in communities of color. While the scope of environmental justice is broad, there exist issues that reveal the ways in which the environment can be used as a discriminatory tool. Lead pollution is one such issue.

Lead, a natural element, is a highly toxic substance. There is no known safe level of lead exposure, so any lead exposure comes with some level of risk. Lead damages and slows brain development. It lowers IQ, makes one more impulsive, and increases one’s chances of committing violent crimes. At high levels, it can be deadly. The very presence of this substance causes damage to the body that cannot be undone, only mitigated. Doctors have known for millennia that high levels of lead exposure are extremely poisonous. But the focus on the disastrous effects of high levels of lead exposure have obscured the lesser known effects of lower levels of exposure.

It wasn’t until the late 1970s that researchers began to recognize the psychological effects of small amounts of lead. Low levels of lead, which affect children more heavily, can lead to anti-social and even violent behavior. After this discovery in the 1970s, regulations quickly followed to decrease the chances of low-level exposure. In 1972, it was removed from gas, new paints, and most household goods. Of course, many houses had already been painted with lead-based paints, which can lead to exposure through flaking or dust. Nonetheless, these regulations created the safest lead environment for children ever seen in the United States. A study published in 2007 linked 56 percent of the 1990s crime reduction to the regulation of lead in the 1970s. Children who grew up after the regulations were passed were less prone to violent behavior than those born before. Identification and regulation of the substance had a measurable effect on real behavior.

But there still exists a lead problem in the US. today. We know that lead is toxic. We know that, on average, minority children have unnaturally higher levels of lead in their blood – a finding that suggests greater exposure. In this case, traditional inequality combines with environmental policy. Lead regulations do not protect everybody in this country equally, and this disparity creates different health outcomes.

The crisis in Flint, Michigan is one of the most recent examples of this issue. The local government of Flint County switched water supplies on April 25, 2014. Residents first complained about the water the next month. During testing by Virginia Tech researchers, the water was found to have exceeded EPA standards. This discovery was initially dismissed by government officials, a response that demonstrates a lack of environmental oversight that exposed thousands of Flint residents to unsafe levels of lead.

While Flint dominated media coverage, it is not the only recent lead crisis. In August 2016, over 1,000 residents of the mostly black West Calumet Housing Complex in East Chicago were forced to relocate due to high levels of lead and arsenic in the ground. The site was first identified by the EPA as high-risk in 2009 due to the complex’s proximity to a former smelting plant. Residents were not informed of the extent of the lead pollution until 2016. An attorney representing the former residents has cited that 85 percent of the children he represents have been diagnosed with unsafe lead levels. Again, there was a lack of time-sensitive regulatory response.

Apart from individual crises, there exists a wider problem with lead in minority communities. A recent publication by Anna Aizer, a Brown professor, indicated that lead exposure is linked to lower test scores for children 11 to 18 years old. The study also reported that lead levels for black and Hispanic children are higher than for their white counterparts, a finding that suggests that lead can help explain the test-score gap. When Rhode Island implemented more stringent lead controls, the researchers found that the new policy “explains 44 percent of the closing of the Black (Hispanic)-white test score gap”. A similar study from Harvard Professor Robert Sampson analyzed the racial composition of Chicago neighborhoods, found that minority neighborhoods were heavily correlated with exposure to high lead levels, and described their findings as reflecting “a form of biosocial stratification… that reinforces racial inequality.” Communities of color face not only social and economic marginalization but also biological and health inequities as a result of exposure to an inherently dangerous substance.

Even when controlling for factors such as socioeconomic status, building quality, and other environmental hazards, the relationship between black communities and higher lead prevalence does not fade away. In 1995, predominantly black neighborhoods had a 75 percent prevalence of elevated lead levels, compared to 25 percent for predominantly white neighborhoods. The overall presence of lead in the Chicago environment has decreased steeply since the 1990s, but black communities still make up 80 percent of those affected by elevated lead levels. The neighborhoods that had the highest prevalence of elevated lead in 1995 remain those with the highest prevalence today. The efforts to remove or seal away lead have benefitted all communities through the reduction of lead hot spots, but these efforts haven’t altered the relative exposure by race. This finding signals that there is more work to be done in reducing lead exposure, specifically in majority-black communities.

The current environmental regulations surrounding lead don’t directly address the causes of this disparity. While a universal public health policy succeeded in decreasing lead exposure across the board, a more targeted approach is needed to close the remaining gap. Recognizing that the same neighborhoods have always had and continue to have the highest prevalence of lead exposure can inform policymakers as to where efforts should be focused. Policymakers also need to take into account the physical mechanism through which lead exposure occurs. Most current lead exposure is a result of decaying paint in old homes or the presence of lead in soil. Homes that were built before 1950 are particularly likely to have elevated lead levels. In addition, vacant homes can release lead into the surrounding soil and are unlikely to be monitored. Specifically targeting areas with high rates of old homes and vacancy would be another way to identify those in specific need of environmental protection.

Lead exposure creates permanent damage and can irreversibly change lives. Fixing lead policy is not the magic solution to racial disparity. But it nonetheless demonstrates how institutional racism can create tragically different lived realities. In a country that largely ignores this idea, it is a place to start.


About the Author

Bastien Ibri '19 is a Culture Section Staff Writer for the Brown Political Review.