May 14, 2022

Nancy Bailey: Lead Poisoning: A Known Learning Loss Threat

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Nancy Bailey looks at one of the real threats to learning that remains unaddressed in some communities. Reposted with permission.

Many parents are concerned about their child’s learning loss due to the pandemic. If children are behind, they can catch up. But there’s another culprit that could cause serious difficulties.

Lead poisoning poses a threat to children through the water they drink from lead solder/pipes, dust exposure involving old paint in homes, and living near land contaminated by old mining and smelter plants. Here’s a more complete list of objects with lead.

Often the lead problem is ignored. After the Flint water catastrophe, Republican Governor Rick Snyder discussed reading problems. From Detroit Free Press reporter Rochelle Riley:

One of the important metrics in someone’s life on the River of Opportunity is the ability to be proficient-reading by third grade,” he [Gov. Snyder] said in January 2015. “How have we done? We were at 63% in 2010, and we are at 70% today. … But 70% doesn’t cut it.”

Snyder and his administration didn’t cut it either, apparently ignoring the reading mission the same way they ignored the Flint water crisis: Third-grade reading proficiency in Flint, where Snyder allowed the water — and children — to be poisoned by lead, dropped from 41.8% in 2014 to 10.7% last year.

That’s a nearly three-quarters drop.

Many think lead poisoning is a problem of the past. While it’s true that gasoline and paint have removed the lead, and levels have decreased, it’s still problematic.

In 2016 Vox revealed that the federal government doesn’t require lead exposure data, or the data is wrong. Vox provides a map. California and Texas failed to report any data.

It only takes a small amount of lead exposure to harm children.

The World Health Organization reports:

There is no known safe blood lead concentration; even blood lead concentrations as low as 5 µg/dL may be associated with decreased intelligence in children, behavioural difficulties and learning problems. As lead exposure increases, the range and severity of symptoms and effects also increase.

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry states:

Exposure to lead can have a wide range of effects on a child’s development and behavior. Even when exposed to small amounts of lead levels, children may appear inattentive, hyperactive, and irritable. Children with greater lead levels may also have problems with learning and reading, delayed growth, and hearing loss. At high levels, lead can cause permanent brain damage and even death. 

Researchers assessed the long-term effect of early childhood lead exposure on academic achievement in elementary and junior high students.

Between 2008 and 2019, in Detroit they found:

. . . a significant association between early childhood lead exposure and academic achievement in Detroit Public Schools, as measured by standardized MEAP tests for students in grades 3, 5, and 8. The dose-response relationship suggests that the higher a student’s BLL [Blood Lead Level] in early childhood was, the more likely that the student would perform worse in the tests.

Smelting Plants

Smelting lead, a process of melting metal, no longer occurs in the U.S.; however, contaminated soil remains a problem.

From a 2013 Scientific America report:

The factories, which used a process called smelting to melt down lead, were in operation from the 1930s until the 1960s when they began to shut down. While the factories themselves may now be gone, their toxic legacy remains, as they have left behind significant amounts of poisonous lead particles in surrounding soils. The lead particles are particularly dangerous for children who live and play in these areas.

Here’s the EPA list of the smelting supersites.

In 2019, Emory University researchers found lead in the soil of a poor, westside African American community near downtown Atlanta. Children were getting ready to plant a garden. The neighborhood became a superfund removal action.

NPR recently reported on the lead poisoning threat in the Midwest, finding lead exposure problems for children in Omaha, Nebraska, and Kansas City. Kansas and Nebraska have been cleaning up the lead from smelter plants.

Old Paint

The report describes homes in Iowa that have lead-based paint banned in 1978. Children might eat paint or inhale the dust, or it might be in the soil where they play. Missouri has many buildings with old lead paint.

Neighborhoods with old homes might still have lead paint.

Lead Pipes

The above NPR report also found that midwestern states had some of the country’s worst problems with lead pipes.

The problem of lead poisoning became national headlines in Flint, which created a need for more special education that seems to be lacking.

Medical professionals have said there’s no way to prove conclusively that lead has caused new disabilities in Flint. But it has been proven that children exposed to lead are at higher risk of neurological damage and developmental delays.

It’s not just Flint. Many states and cities are addressing water and lead concerns.

A 2018 Government Accountability Office report claimed:

An estimated 43 percent of school districts, serving 35 million students, tested for lead in school drinking water in 2016 or 2017. An estimated 41 percent of school districts, serving 12 million students, had not tested for lead.

Among school districts that did the test, an estimated 37 percent found elevated lead (lead at levels above their selected threshold for taking remedial action.)

In 2018, it was discovered that New York’s public schools had water problems:

. . . testing recently revealed that at least 82 percent of the nearly 5,000 public schools have drinking water lead levels that exceed the state action level of 15 parts per billion. Officials conducted the sampling as a requirement of a state law signed in September of 2016, which also mandates that New York public school districts notify parents and the state of exceedances and remediation plans for potable water sources containing lead.

Here are the ten states with the most lead pipes:

  • Illinois
  • Indiana
  • Michigan
  • Minnesota
  • Missouri
  • New Jersey
  • New York
  • Ohio
  • Texas
  • Wisconsin

Fortunately, the Biden administration includes $55 billion in the infrastructure bill to ensure clean drinking water for households, businesses, schools, and child care centers. The White House estimates about 400,000 schools and childcare centers have unsafe water.

How will the lead crisis improve in public schools and households?

Take action!

Parents, educators, and community leaders must consider the threats in cities, towns, and schools regarding lead poisoning.

Here’s a link showing what to look out for and how to reduce a child’s exposure to lead.

Also, age and weather might change the lead levels in a home. So it makes sense to continue to get periodic home testing.

There is much more information about lead poisoning in children online. Become aware of this potential threat, and visit a child’s healthcare giver if there’s concern that they’ve had lead exposure.

Previous posts about lead poisoning.

Reasons Children Have Reading Problems that Corporate Reformers Don’t Talk About MARCH 20, 2019

Michigan to Retain Children with Lead Poisoning OCTOBER 7, 2016

Hey CEOs! Get the Lead Out (of Flint)! JANUARY 31, 2016

Lead Poisoning and “No Excuses” 

Revisiting “A Strange Ignorance…” LEAD Poisoning and Student Achievement 


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