How Many Flints? America’s Coast-to-Coast Toxic Crisis

By David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz, TomDispatch regulars, co-authors and co-editors of seven books and 85 articles on a variety of industrial and occupational hazards, including Deceit and Denial: The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution and, most recently, Lead Wars: The Politics of Science and the Fate of America’s Children.  Rosner is a professor of sociomedical sciences and history at Columbia University and co-director of the Center for the History of Public Health at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health. Markowitz is a professor of history at John Jay College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York. Both have been awarded a certificate of appreciation by the United States Senate through the office of Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, who has recognized the importance of their work on lead and industrial poisoning. Originally published at TomlDisptach

“I know if I was a parent up there, I would be beside myself if my kids’ health could be at risk,” said President Obama on a recent trip to Michigan.  “Up there” was Flint, a rusting industrial city in the grip of a “water crisis” brought on by a government austerity scheme.  To save a couple of million dollars, that city switched its source of water from Lake Huron to the Flint River, a long-time industrial dumping ground for the toxic industries that had once made their home along its banks.  Now, the city is enveloped in a public health emergency, with elevated levels of lead in its water supply and in the blood of its children.

The price tag for replacing the lead pipes that contaminated its drinking water, thanks to the corrosive toxins found in the Flint River, is now estimated at up to $1.5 billion. No one knows where that money will come from or when it will arrive.  In the meantime, the cost to the children of Flint has been and will be incalculable.   As little as a few specks of lead in the water children drink or in flakes of paint that come off the walls of old houses and are ingested can change the course of a life. The amount of lead dust that covers a thumbnail is enough to send a child into a coma or into convulsions leading to death. It takes less than a tenth of that amount to cause IQ loss, hearing loss, or behavioral problems like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and dyslexia. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the government agency responsible for tracking and protecting the nation’s health, says simply, “No safe blood lead level in children has been identified.”

President Obama would have good reason to worry if his kids lived in Flint.  But the city’s children are hardly the only ones threatened by this public health crisis.  There’s a lead crisis for children in Baltimore, Maryland, Herculaneum, Missouri, Sebring, Ohio, and even the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C., and that’s just to begin a list.  State reports suggest, for instance, that “18 cities in Pennsylvania and 11 in New Jersey may have an even higher share of children with dangerously elevated levels of lead than does Flint.” Today, scientists agree that there is no safe level of lead for children and at least half of American children have some of this neurotoxin in their blood.  The CDC is especially concerned about the more than 500,000 American children who have substantial amounts of lead in their bodies. Over the past century, an untold number have had their IQs reduced, their school performances limited, their behaviors altered, and their neurological development undermined.  From coast to coast, from the Sun Belt to the Rust Belt, children have been and continue to be imperiled by a century of industrial production, commercial gluttony, and abandonment by the local, state, and federal governments that should have protected them.  Unlike in Flint, the “crisis” seldom comes to public attention.

Two, Three… Many Flints

In Flint, the origins of the current crisis lay in the history of auto giant General Motors (GM) and its rise in the middle decades of the twentieth century to the status of the world’s largest corporation. GM’s Buick plant alone once occupied “an area almost a mile and a half long and half a mile wide,” according to the Chicago Tribune, and several Chevrolet and other GM plants literally covered the waterfront of “this automotive city.” Into the Flint River went the toxic wastes of factories large and small, which once supplied batteries, paints, solders, glass, fabrics, oils, lubricating fluids, and a multitude of other materials that made up the modern car. In these plants strung out along the banks of the Flint and Saginaw rivers and their detritus lay the origins of the present public health emergency.

The crisis that attracted President Obama’s attention is certainly horrifying, but the children of Flint have been poisoned in one way or another for at least 80 years. Three generations of those children living around Chevrolet Avenue in the old industrial heart of the city experienced an environment filled with heavy metal toxins that cause neurological conditions in them and cardiovascular problems in adults.

As Michael Moore documented in his film Roger and Me, GM abandoned Flint in a vain attempt to stave off financial disaster.  Having sucked its people dry, the company ditched the city, leaving it to deal with a polluted hell without the means to do so.  Like other industrial cities that have suffered this kind of abandonment, Flint’s population is majority African American and Latino, and has a disproportionate number of families living below the poverty line.  Of its 100,000 residents, 65% are African American and Latino and 42%  are mired in poverty. 

The president should be worried about Flint’s children and local, state, and federal authorities need to fix the pipes, sewers, and water supply of the city. Technically, this is a feasible, if expensive, proposition. It’s already clear, however, that the political will is just not there even for this one community. Gina McCarthy, the Environmental Protection Agency’s administrator, has refused to provide Flint’s residents with even a prospective timetable for replacing their pipes and making their water safe. There is, however, a far graver problem that is even less easy to fix: the mix of racism and corporate greed that have put lead and other pollutants into millions of homes in the United States. The scores of endangered kids in Flint are just the tip of a vast, toxic iceberg.  Even Baltimore, which first identified its lead poisoning epidemic in the 1930s, still faces a crisis, especially in largely African American communities, when it comes to the lead paint in its older housing stock.

Just this month, Maryland’s secretary of housing, community, and development, Kenneth C. Holt, dismissed the never-ending lead crisis in Baltimore by callously suggesting that it might all be a shuck.  A mother, he said, might fake such poisoning by putting “a lead fishing weight in her child’s mouth [and] then take the child in for testing.” Such a tactic, he indicated, without any kind of proof, was aimed at making landlords “liable for providing the child with [better] housing.” Unfortunately, the attitudes of Holt and Governor Rick Snyder of Michigan have proven all too typical of the ways in which America’s civic and state leaders have tended to ignore, dismiss, or simply deny the real suffering of children, especially those who are black and Latino, when it comes to lead and other toxic chemicals.

There is, in fact, a grim broader history of lead poisoning in America.  It was probably the most widely dispersed environmental toxin that affected children in this country.  In part, this was because, for decades during the middle of the twentieth century, it was marketed as an essential ingredient in industrial society, something without which none of us could get along comfortably.  Those toxic pipes in Flint are hardly the only, or even the primary, source of danger to children left over from that era.

In the 1920s, tetraethyl lead was introduced as an additive for gasoline.  It was lauded at the time as a “gift of God” by a representative of the Ethyl Corporation, a creation of GM, Standard Oil, and Dupont, the companies that invented, produced, and marketed the stuff. Despite warnings that this industrial toxin might pollute the planet, which it did, almost three-quarters of a century would pass before it was removed from gasoline in the United States.  During that time, spewed out of the tailpipes of hundreds of millions of cars and trucks, it tainted the soil that children played in and was tracked onto floors that toddlers touched.  Banned from use in the 1980s, it still lurks in the environment today.

Meanwhile, homes across the country were tainted by lead in quite a different way. Lead carbonate, a white powder, was mixed with linseed oil to create the paint that was used in the nation’s homes, hospitals, schools, and other buildings until 1978.  Though its power to harm and even kill children who sucked on lead-painted windowsills, toys, cribs, and woodwork had long been known, it was only in that year that the federal government banned its use in household paints.

Hundreds of tons of the lead in paint that covered the walls of houses, apartment buildings, and workplaces across the United States remains in place almost four decades later, especially in poorer neighborhoods where millions of African American and Latino children currently live.  Right now, most middle class white families feel relatively immune from the dangers of lead, although the gentrification of old neighborhoods and the renovation of old homes can still expose their children to dangerous levels of lead dust from the old paint on those walls. However, economically and politically vulnerable black and Hispanic children, many of whom inhabit dilapidated older housing, still suffer disproportionately from the devastating effects of the toxin. This is the meaning of institutional racism in action today.  As with the water flowing into homes from the pipes of Flint’s water system, so the walls of its apartment complexes, not to mention those in poor neighborhoods of Detroit, Baltimore, Washington, and virtually every other older urban center in the country, continue to poison children exposed to lead-polluted dust, chips, soil, and air.

Over the course of the past century, tens of millions of children have been poisoned by lead and millions more remain in danger of it today. Add to this the risks these same children face from industrial toxins like mercury, asbestos, and polychlorinated biphenyls (better known as PCBs) and you have an ongoing recipe for a Flint-like disaster but on a national scale.

In truth, the United States has scores of “Flints” awaiting their moments.  Think of them as ticking toxic time bombs — just an austerity scheme or some official’s poor decision away from a public health disaster.  Given this, it’s remarkable, even in the wake of Flint, how little attention or publicity such threats receive.  Not surprisingly, then, there seems to be virtually no political will to ensure that future generations of children will not suffer the same fate as those in Flint.  

The Future of America’s Toxic Past

A series of decisions by state and local officials turned Flint’s chronic post-industrial crisis into a total public health disaster.  If clueless, corrupt, or heartless government officials get all the blame for this (and blame they do deserve), the larger point will unfortunately be missed — that there are many post-industrial Flints, many other hidden tragedies affecting America’s children that await their moments in the news. Treat Flint as an anomaly and you condemn families nationwide to bear the damage to their children alone, abandoned by a society unwilling to invest in cleaning up a century of industrial pollution, or even to acknowledge the injustice involved.

Flint may be years away from a solution to its current crisis, but in a few cities elsewhere in the country there is at least a modicum of hope when it comes to developing ways to begin to address this country’s poisonous past. In California, for example, 10 cities and counties, including San Francisco, San Diego, Los Angeles, and Oakland, have successfully sued and won an initial judgment against three lead pigment manufacturers for $1.15 billion. That money will be invested in removing lead paint from the walls of homes in these cities. If this judgment is upheld on appeal, it would be an unprecedented and pathbreaking victory, since it would force a polluting industry to clean up the mess it created and from which it profited.

There have been other partial victories, too. In Herculaneum, Missouri, for instance, where half the children within a mile of the nation’s largest lead smelter suffered lead poisoning, jurors returned a $320 million verdict against Fluor Corporation, one of the world’s largest construction and engineering firms. That verdict is also on appeal, while the company has moved its smelter to Peru where whole new populations are undoubtedly being poisoned.

President Obama hit the nail on the head with his recent comments on Flint, but he also missed the larger point. There he was just a few dozen miles from that city’s damaged water system when he spoke in Detroit, another symbol of corporate abandonment with its own grim toxic legacy. Thousands of homes in the Motor City, the former capital of the auto industry, are still lead paint disaster areas. Perhaps it’s time to widen the canvas when it comes to the poisoning of America’s children and face the terrible human toll caused by “the American century.”

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  1. kimsarah

    Sounds like it’s time to tally how many Flints there are, add up the total cost to fix it, then force lawmakers to explain why building more bombs, funding more Blackwaters or bailing out banks again is more important. A presidential candidate could really capitalize.

    1. abynormal Margaret Flowers and Jill Stein/Independent Pres. Candidate

      “No human being should be condemned to drink water contaminated by a neurotoxin,” said Stein… called for the Governor and other public officials who knew about the water poisoning but failed to act to be criminally prosecuted.”

      INCOMPOSSIBLE, adj. Unable to exist if something else exists. Two things are incompossible when the world of being has scope enough for one of them, but not enough for both — as Walt Whitman’s poetry and God’s mercy to man. Incompossibility, it will be seen, is only incompatibility let loose. Instead of such low language as “Go heel yourself — I mean to kill you on sight,” the words, “Sir, we are incompossible,” would convey an equally significant intimation and in stately courtesy are altogether superior. Devils Dic.

    2. inhibi

      Couldn’t agree more. For those that travel, it should be easy to see how poor America’s infrastructure is compared to other 1st world countries. It’s abysmal, some parts of America seem like India to me, namely the Detroit area and poor towns around the Midwest, once the industrial capital, now a barren wasteland.

      Can you imagine a candidate pushing forward to spend even half the military expense budget on infrastructure? Imagine, the number of jobs it would create, fixing all the roads, dams, bridges, pipes, etc. that are rotting all over the country.

  2. lushfun

    Strange how the Federal officials and Corporations are greedy and racist

    Yet, the decision to save money and use the polluted from the river instead of the lake was taken by a Local official.

    Seems odd that in order to save millions they went forward in destroying billions in infrastructure.
    I am certain that the person whom chose to “save” money will get promoted and a bonus, because local officials are never responsible for their actions. Saving that pension and salaries for the officialdom is paramount the people are irrelevant, and if something happens find scapegoats elsewhere. They are never responsible.

    1. me

      Exactly. Always blame someone else that has a million other issues to deal with.
      And why is everything a racial issue.
      The residents can move.
      Housing in a rural bumpkin town is just as cheap as the generated hoods.

    2. tegnost

      I’m a little uncertain what your point is, there seems to be some asymmetry there, and you’re bundling issues. When you claim “Yet a local official”, you fail to name this individual, I was under the impression that it was the emergency manager, can you clarify this point here, I’m not visiting your link. It does seem odd that “in order to save millions they went forward in destroying billions in infrastructure” (I think you could write a book about the prevalence of that perplexing conundrum), sometimes bad choices are made, why, when people were complaining about the water was nothing done by the state, other than of course providing GM (a corporation if you were not aware of this) with fresh water that would not corrode auto parts? Shouldn’t one of your teflon coated Federal or Corporate entities stepped up and made adjustments to the actions of this one nefarious local official slathered in pension and salaries (and by the way how does the Local salary and pension compare to the average Corporate lobbyist or upper level Federal official, please expound) You can make that local official responsible by naming them, why don’t you, please? If you can’t you’re being irresponsible, are you not simply casting aspersions and deflecting blame? Then there’s this “I am certain that the person whom chose to “save” money will get promoted and a bonus” yet another tome length perplexity that is clearly evident in Corporate america, not sure the “Locals” get much of that but you can correct me. Finally, you close with ” They are never responsible.” Are local officials to blame for the massive amount of pollutants that Corporations bestow upon us? Again, when, why and how? I hear this “greedy person with their job and pension” argument a lot from pretty well off individuals, plain vanilla class warfare. People work for money, their pay packages are not all the same. One more thing, and probably what inspired me to inquire of you. Capitalizing the “F”,”C”, and “L” in local federal and corporate, you attempt to make all three equal, I’ll clarify my opinion which is Corporations clearly have a lot of power, the Feds have a lot of power, the locals have little or no power. You’re the one looking for scapegoats.

  3. makedoanmend

    ” A presidential candidate could really capitalize.”

    a wee lol, tinged with bitter and sad.

    One would like to think so. But will any? Doubtful. Tangental at best. Invest in people? Never. They must locate to new pollution opportunity. Wasteland behind. Before?

    nature and human nature. When did they become enemies?

    1. inhibi

      Probably only a short while after we learned how to build a fire. The Lascaux Caves really illustrate, above all else, how humans at one point viewed themselves as part of a bigger circle of life, not on top of it.

      I do have to say though, that this mess in Flint is really just the result of decades of pilfering done by the local government. Just so happened that when the governor tried to force severe austerity measures, it all blows up in his face (as it should). To think that they wouldn’t have at least BEGUN laying new pipe, and contracted it out to some local businesses…its just unimaginable to me, how horrible and backwards politics is, to let the town languish in debt and squalor for so many years, and then when new management comes in, they try to cut back on expenses at the detriment of the locals.

      Basically, all politics does is obfuscate everything so nothing gets done. I always assumed politics was to better the lives of citizens, but as I grow older, and as technology allows all of us to peruse through more and more facts, it seems we have reached a point (or at least reached a point of transparency) where American politics actually detracts from the lives of its citizens, and in some cases, almost outright killing them all to save a few million here and there to give to the wealthy and connected.

  4. abynormal

    Just this month, Maryland’s secretary of housing, community, and development, Kenneth C. Holt, dismissed the never-ending lead crisis in Baltimore by callously suggesting that it might all be a shuck. A mother, he said, might fake such poisoning by putting “a lead fishing weight in her child’s mouth [and] then take the child in for testing.

    Out of the way, it’s a busy day
    I’ve got things on my mind.
    For want of the price of tea and a slice
    The old man died.
    Roger Waters

    1. Steve H.

      IDIOT, n. A member of a large and powerful tribe whose influence in human affairs has always been dominant and controlling. The Idiot’s activity is not confined to any special field of thought or action, but “pervades and regulates the whole.” He has the last word in everything; his decision is unappealable. He sets the fashions of opinion and taste, dictates the limitations of speech and circumscribes conduct with a dead-line.

      – Bierce, but you knew that.

      1. abynormal

        (-: WEREWOLF, n. A wolf that was once, or is sometimes, a man. All werewolves are of evil disposition, having assumed a bestial form to gratify a bestial appetite, but some, transformed by sorcery, are as humane as is consistent with an acquired taste for human flesh (their howl begins with a black single mother…). Devils Dic

    2. reslez

      Just this month, Maryland’s secretary of housing, community, and development, Kenneth C. Holt, dismissed the never-ending lead crisis in Baltimore by callously suggesting that it might all be a shuck. A mother, he said, might fake such poisoning by putting “a lead fishing weight in her child’s mouth [and] then take the child in for testing.

      A tumbrel remark if I ever heard one. Mr Holt deserves to share a cell with Mme Antoinette. And this individual is in charge of housing, community and development!

  5. PlutoniumKun

    I must admit to being quite shocked by the recent revelations because I’ve always thought of lead poisoning as a problem that was ‘solved’ by activists and regulation in the past. I had no idea there were still lead pipes in use – I remember back in the 1980’s learning about how the Romans poisoned themselves with lead pipes. Of course there would always be legacy toxins around, but its distressing to see just how prevalent they still are.

    There has been a hypothesis that the steep drop in crime rates (not just in the US, but in most developed countries) since the 1990’s was due to a generation of poorer children growing up lead free (i.e. without the known neurological disorders associated with lead poisoning). In many ways, it is the hypothesis which most fits the evidence, even if its not proven. If nothing else, this should show us that failing to invest in cleaning out all lead from our cities and water supplies would in the long run be one of the very best investments possible. At a time when Obama has just announced a huge boost to defence spending… well, its not hard to despair at priorities.

    1. inhibi

      In Chicago, even though the treatment plant is stellar, there are so many old pipes (some wooden!) still in use that I’ve gotten readings at the sink 8x the national limit for particulate matter. If I had a gas chromatography machine, id run tests on the composition, but the permeating smell of algae indicates that would most likely be a waste of time…

      The ONLY way to combat this is to either boil-distill your water, or run it through a reverse-osmosis machine (essentially, 3 to 5 filters through which pressurized water runs through). I remember when certain doctors would tell me that distilled water is bad because it “leaches” ions from your body, blah blah. Yeah, maybe if you never drink soda, eat vegetables 80% of the time, and never touch processed foods. But I think everyone’s health would improve drinking a glass of distilled water everyday.

    2. Jake Mudrosti

      I’ve always thought of lead poisoning as a problem that was ‘solved’ by activists and regulation in the past.

      Yes, that’s because huge numbers of wannabe scientists and activists specifically used their media platforms to assert that that’s how things stand in the U.S.

      This is just one of countless examples:
      “And frankly, yes, it is a ridiculous waste that we obtain so much of our drinking water this way [bottled water] when it is free flowing and just as good if not better for you right out of the tap.”

      The authors of the above piece clearly have a personal drive to appear “green” & “environmentally aware” by pointing out the resources wasted in bottling water, without doing the proper work of informing people of real and ongoing life-altering hazards — or of attending to specific cases of bad oversight, bad infrastructure, or bad politics.

        1. Harry Shearer

          One thing we’ve learned from the Flint mess is that “local”–state-appointed–officials decided to stop adding anti-corrosion chemicals to the new Flint River-based water supply. What does that tell you? Good ol’ tap water, in Flint and New Orleans, among other places, contains anti-corrosion chemicals. Got a filter for that?

  6. visitor

    At a time when Obama has just announced a huge boost to defence spending… well, its not hard to despair at priorities.

    Just compare. From the above article:

    The price tag for replacing the lead pipes that contaminated its drinking water, thanks to the corrosive toxins found in the Flint River, is now estimated at up to $1.5 billion.

    And from another article DOD running short of smart bombs:

    Defense One reports that the Obama administration will send a request to Congress next week to approve an additional $1.8 billion for the DOD in order to purchase 45,000 new Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) smart bombs and other air-dropped ordnance.

    Cannons instead of butter. Nothing new under the sun.

    1. nowhere

      Small potatoes!

      Total cost of modernizing the United States’ nuclear triad over 30 years could be as high as $1 trillion, with $348 billion spend over the next ten years, according to a proposed modernization plan of the Obama White House.

      That’s a lot of new water supply piping, solar panels, and local farming right there.

  7. DakotabornKansan

    It is now certain that the public does know. It is not so certain the powers that be care.

    Many more families and children across the nation have been and will be condemned to suffer the consequences of a century of industrial pollution.

    And they will be forsaken by those who employ what Paul Farmer called “the cynical calculus by which some lives are considered valuable and others expendable.”

  8. Carla

    What if everyone who reads this emails it to their city council members and mayors? That’s what I’m going to do.

    1. abynormal

      10 November 2015: There are 19,429 municipal governments in the United States. Many small towns use the council-manager system (most counties are run this way) and those that don’t, have a weak mayor-council system. Almost all large US cities have strong mayor systems. Towns with populations of 5,000 or less (varies between states) are not allowed to incorporate and are overseen by the county government.

      Mayors of the largest US cities (w/direct email links)

      a site i run on my feedly

      1. Carla

        I understand. Nevertheless, this is the responsibility of every level of government. City councils and mayors run for office and are elected by the citizens of those cities. If those elected officials in turn apply pressure to officials elected regionally and state-wide, and to their state EPA’s, perhaps we can get somewhere.

        Yes, I’m aware of the differences between council-manager and strong mayor systems. I don’t see that this eliminates the health and safety responsibilities of local elected officials and appointed city managers.

        As much as anything, my point is that now that we KNOW, we need to alert our local government officials: we’re not going to allow the cat to be stuffed back into the bag.

        Do you disagree?

      2. Carla

        Yes, I understand. And I’m aware of the differences between council-manager and strong mayor forms of government.

        Regardless, they all run for office and are elected and paid by us. They all are sworn to protect the health and safety of our communities. Of course they cannot do so without the aid and cooperation of state and federal officials, who also bear huge responsibility.

        I suggest sending the article to local officials as a means of alerting them that now that we KNOW, we will not allow the cat to be stuffed back into the bag.

        Do you disagree?

        1. abynormal

          I copy/posted the difference for those capped at the population level. I even added a link I use to follow “the bag”.
          Where in my post, since 4:19AM, do I show disagreement?

          ‘Difficult to see clearly through defensiveness.’

  9. Steve H.

    A couple of technical points for the future:

    : Clean water may be the single most important factor in health. It’s obvious in third-world situations, more insidious in first-world. Decaying infrastructure is endemic, and testing each faucet is cost-prohibitive. An on-site water filter should be considered a need, not a want.

    The filter needs to be able to remove carcinogenic by-products of the chlorine used to sterilize the water, as well as ions like lead. Bottled water is often straight from the tap and does not solve this. Solutions like the LifeStraw only apply to bacteria, and not the much smaller ions.

    There are low-tech solutions with caveats. In particular, solar distillation is widely available, though the first pulse usually needs to be discarded as it can contain volatiles. For the future, the exclusion-zone water that Gerald Pollack is working on can ‘filter’ ions as small as protons, and I have great hope for the technique, but no applications are yet available.

    : Lead paint is also endemic. A pre-petroleum-paint method of limewash is a method I’m investigating for use in our town. The lime is oxidized calcium, and since the lead manifests its effect by substitution for calcium, the lime may swamp leads effect. There are many peeling buildings around here, and doing a full lead-paint mitigation is very expensive. Those with peeling paint generally don’t have the cash for it, so I’m offering this as a theoretical solution, but I must stress I have found no verified research on it. This is a personal investigation that I’m hoping someone with resources will pick up on, but until then there is no scientific nor legal grounds for its use in mitigation.

    1. JE

      One visionary engineer has been working on the clean water problem for a long time and is close to a solution. I don’t know if there are plans to bring Dean Kamen’s “Slingshot” to the US but he has been working to get these water purification systems cheap enough and rugged enough to bring to developing nations for years. I would love to see them brought to Flint or any similarly suffering town as Slingshot can turn any water into pure drinkable water. You could even “gooify” a few politicians and get a few gallons of crisp clean lead-free water out of them.

      1. Carla

        Intriguing. Do you know where the lead and other toxic contaminants go? Don’t we still have the problem of safely disposing of the toxic elements?

  10. Paul Tioxon

    Lead paint abatement was one of the major projects in Philadelphia for the housing stock owned by either the Federal or city governments. REO, Real Estate Owned, inventory for both numbered in excess of 40,000 homes due the rapid collapse of the industrial employment job sector. It was not only regularly reported in the local newspapers and TV news, I was directly witness to the effort to scrape the paint off of properties when I worked as a young summer employee at HUD in the city during the mid 1970s. Lead abatement required testing for levels of level, then the burning and scraping off all of the surface areas all of the paint and retesting for lead levels. Proper hazardous material disposal was the final part of the decontamination process.

    Today, it is hard to imagine just how serious Environmentalism was taken by the voting public and the politicians whose careers depended upon those votes. The warnings and responses to the warnings, such as the EPA or The Sierra club or Greenpeace, have been muted by organized opposition. Amid the buzzsaw of political coverage on the news last night was word that Obama’s clean air initiative has been halted by the Supreme Court pending other lawsuits trying to stop the regulations for burning coal at electricity power plants. Despite the clear evidence of the disaster generated by coal as a power plant fuel and the cost effective and sustainable alternatives that can be brought online, the organized opposition is bringing the effort to clean up the air we breathe to a halt. It is a fight to the death for the fossil fuel industry, starting with the elimination of coal and then oil and natgas, the fossil fuel era has seen its demise written all over these policies. And for good reason, it is the policy of all of the nations of world to transition from fossil fuels to greener energy sources thanks to the UN COP21 agreement.

    The water supplies with lead pipes can be dealt with by homeowners who may have had the good fortune to have had the municipal water supplies replaced lead up to their property line. The older properties may still have lead pipes coming from inside the house to the main in the street which connect to the iron or copper plumbing inside the home. This can be replaced by plumbers who sledge hammer a wider cast iron pipe alongside the lead pipe feeding from the water main in the street. The new connection to the water main, a smaller steel or copper pipe, can then slide through the sledge hammered cast iron pipe to the water main, with the abandoned lead line left in the foundation of the building and parts removed from from the ground outside. A new lead free connection from the water main to the home is then hooked up. This is one tactic used by homeowners, including myself, to save a world of pain for my family and all those who live in the home I used to live in.

  11. Dave

    “All public officials should have to participate in whatever they regulate.”

    The law would mandate that to qualify for public office, a mayor and councilpeople’s children attend local public schools, that the family live in the polity they regulate and drink its tap water. I came to this belief after watching public officials mandate school busing for other peoples’ kids but not their own who went to private schools.

    I’d also like to see the families of G.E. executives living next to the nuclear reactors that General Electric builds.

    A coat of cheap water based paint over old lead is an easy solution for renters who often have an expensive SUV sitting outside.

    Instead of going off and building orphanages in Nicaragua, maybe local activists could just paint local low income housing. The money they would spend on airfare to a foreign country would cover all their expenses.

    1. Lord Koos

      Even better, make sure that congress-critters and their children serve in any wars that they vote for…

  12. Felix47

    From this article it seems like everyone raised in the 50’s……rich or poor……was exposed to lead. I worked as a car mechanic back then and we were always exposed to leaded gasoline. We would rinse grease off parts etc. I thought the government tested tap water. Does it not?

    1. susan the other

      yes. the county health supervisor or some equivalent. shamefully incompetent or corrupt it seems. Flint residents need to be evacuated to another city until Flint can be detoxed. or permanently if Flint is abandoned by government. the American Century indeed. But i read that Russia is even worse.

  13. RUKidding

    I heard a partial commentary on the radio last weekend about the horrible lead pipe situation in Flint. Someone from another English speaking country (don’t know who; had an accent) commented that US people spend X amount on bottled water – much of which comes straight from the tap, which many don’t realize – and if we only spent the billions (?) we spend on bottled water instead on improving our water systems, including pipes and filtering etc, we’d all be better off.

    Well can’t have that! The “free” hand of the Market demands we pay dishonest corporations for ruining our environment in many ways, including an over supply of bhp plastic water bottles currently destroying the oceans, not to mention all kinds of pollution for creating plastic water bottles, plus we, the taxpayers, giving tax incentives to companies like Nestle to bottle and re-sell to us our tap water.

    Nifty! Plus many many US citizens would PREFER to pay big buck$ for pollution causing bottle water, rather than being dreaded horrible Socialists by paying for community-supporting improvements to the common water supply & water delivery system. GAH! Some lousy lazy freeloading lucky duck blah person might get to benefit from that. Why should “hard working” white people pay for the lazy freeloaders to get something for nothing.

    And so on and so forth.

    We are a third world country. Do not pass Go. Do not pay $200 dollars. This is it. We are here.

    Greed is good.

  14. steelhead23

    Who should pay? I note that the cities most afflicted with legacy pollution effects are relatively poor. It is very unlikely Flint could float a $1.5 billion bond issue and Michigan itself is pretty tapped out. This leaves only the federal government – which today has swallowed the neoliberal Kool-aid of austerity. Perhaps if MMTers want to gain some public support they might wish to point at the potential to use federal deficit spending to repair the nation’s deteriorating infrastructure, while simultaneously boosting the economy. It is clear that austerity is not only not working, it’s flat killing us.

  15. mark

    “ The Secret History of Lead”

    March 2 2000.

    By Jamie Lincoln Kitman (Nation online)

    This is an outstanding article. can’t get a link to work.

    “ Lead was outlawed as an automotive gasoline additive in this country in 1986–more than sixty years after its introduction–to enable the use of emissions-reducing catalytic converters in cars (which are contaminated and rendered useless by lead) and to address the myriad health and safety concerns that have shadowed the toxic additive from its first, tentative appearance on US roads in the twenties, through a period of international ubiquity only recently ending. Since the virtual disappearance of leaded gas in the United States (it’s still sold for use in propeller airplanes), the mean blood-lead level of the American population has declined more than 75 percent. A 1985 EPA study estimated that as many as 5,000 Americans died annually from lead-related heart disease prior to the country’s lead phaseout. According to a 1988 report to Congress on childhood lead poisoning in America by the government’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, one can estimate that the blood-lead levels of up to 2 million children were reduced every year to below toxic levels between 1970 and 1987 as leaded gasoline use was reduced. From that report and elsewhere, one can conservatively estimate that a total of about 68 million young children had toxic exposures to lead from gasoline from 1927 to 1987. ”


  16. Skip Intro

    The Rise and Fall of the American Empire –
    In this sequel to Gibbon’s The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, lead once more plays a pivotal role.

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