By Sage Lively | Hamilton College Intern
Ecological disasters continue to escalate all across the world. Previously, we’ve talked about the human negligence or plain apathy that has led to giant environmental consequences. This month, we’ll be addressing an issue that, in comparison, is completely preventable, and yet has caused 21.7 million years of healthy life lost worldwide: lead poisoning.
Lead poisoning is, quite literally, the silent killer. The avenues of exposure can be subtle and hard to trace, often hidden in paints, piping, toys, and even soil. You can be endangered by physical touch, swallowing, or just breathing in lead dust.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “There is no level of exposure to lead that is known to be without harmful effects.” These effects can include profound health impacts, up to and including death.
Children and pregnant women are especially vulnerable—“When children are exposed to lead, a neurotoxin, the consequences can be devastating: lowered IQ, growth and speech delays, learning disabilities, organ failure, and even death…” (Utica University).
Adults can be affected as well, with dangers of high blood pressure and kidney damage. With lead poisoning, symptoms can vary depending on the length and severity of the exposure, as well as the age of the victim. Due to this, it can be incredibly hard to locate the cause of these issues.
According to the WHO, in 2019 alone lead exposure accounted for 900,000 deaths, as well as 62.5% of “the global burden of developmental intellectual disability whose cause is not obvious.”
This is an important issue worldwide, but to see the effects of lead poisoning we need to look no further than our own neighborhoods. Beyond unsafe piping, paints, and other housing material, lead can be found in our very soil.
Old lead smelters, or “ghost factories” used to be stationed across the U.S. Though they’ve now been shut down, the damage was done, as the surrounding soil was slowly and thoroughly made toxic. Utica University alumna Lana Nitti explores how these ghost factories “deposited high levels of lead contamination into the soil, causing major health problems for people, especially children, who live and play in those areas.”
To further her concerns, Nitti discovered she lived in one such ‘red zone’ in Cornhill. Nitti isn’t alone in this dangerous environment as “Cornhill and West Utica have the highest rates of lead poisoning per capita in the entire state.” Forest Fires and deforestation may feel far away, but lead poisoning is a personal, present threat for Utica.
It is no coincidence that the most dangerous levels of lead are found in low-income neighborhoods. Maybe the working class factory workers put down roots, and the economic environment was cemented decades ago. Maybe those who can afford to move away, to settle elsewhere, won’t choose to live in environmentally dangerous areas. Maybe the government and health officials would care more if more affluent communities were at risk. Likely all of the above. And New York is just part of the larger picture – according to WHO, the highest burden of lead poisoning has routinely fallen on “low- and middle-income countries.” Time and time again the worst consequences of environmental issues are levied at people of color and disadvantaged communities.
Lead poisoning only exacerbates these communities’ existing issues. According to the Sentencing Project, in the U.S. “Black Americans are incarcerated in state prisons at nearly 5 times the rate of white Americans,” while Latinx individuals are incarcerated at 1.3 times the rate of white incarceration. This bias in the criminalization process, and harm done to these communities, is only furthered by exposure to lead. The symptoms of lead poisoning such as impeded impulse control and lowered IQ lead to more victims of the prison system.
As Nitti explains, “It’s quite literally taxing our society. We spend more money dealing with the consequences of lead poisoning than we do in trying to prevent it.”
In many ways, this negligence mirrors the American prison system. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the U.S. spends $81 billion per year on mass incarceration, and according to the Prison Policy Initiative, the figure is even higher, estimated at $182 billion. We pour money into the imprisonment and mistreatment of our citizens, but where is all that money when it comes to education, rehabilitation, and community resources?
So, what are the solutions? There are a number of ways to keep yourself and your family safe. In an attempt to combat lead poisoning while remaining economically accessible, Nitti adapted a process called Microwave Assisted Extraction—a simple test that only requires a soil sample and a basic American microwave. The Oneida County Lead Prevention Program also has resources available for children who test positive for lead poisoning, including home safety checks free of charge.
While these resources are vital for our continued safety, it’s also frustrating that they are needed at all. These are not individual issues—environmental dangers like lead poisoning are infrastructural, and affect everyone in places like Cornhill, West Utica, and our community at large.
As such, these issues require institutional changes. Organizations like The New York League of Conservation Voters (NYLCV) show how legislative change is possible. The NYLCV fight for “clean water, clean air, renewable energy and open space through political action,” as seen in their victory last year in passing the NY state Senate Bill S. 2122-A/A. 160-B, which protects public school drinking water from lead poisoning.
Going forward protect your family and your community by using these resources, and joining the fight against lead poisoning: https://nylcv.org/, https://ocgov.net/oneida/envhealth/childlead#:~:text=When%20children%20have%20a%20high, and%20soil%20around%20the%20home, https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/lead-poisoning-and-health.