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The Children of Flint: Victims of Environmental Injustice

Environmental_HazardFlint, Michigan has sadly entered public consciousness as the site of one of the worst man-made environmental health disasters of our times. Rampant pollution? Check. Expedient political choices that prioritized convenience and money over constituents’ health? Check. Health harms disproportionately impacting our most vulnerable children? Check. What we now know is that thousands of children have been exposed to extraordinarily high levels of lead, and an unknown vast number are suffering health consequences of elevated blood lead levels.

As defined by the Environmental Protection Agency, environmental justiceis the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.Environmental injustice, then, is done when there exist health disparities based on these same factors. Lead poisoning has long been cited as one of the most egregious examples of environmental injustice, disproportionately affecting the health of poor, urban children. Despite this knowledge, once again, in Flint, we are witnessing the potential devastation of a generation of poor children. And Flint does not stand alone: many other communities are experiencing ongoing lead poisoning epidemics. Philadelphia, Cleveland, Detroit - poor, minority children in all of these urban centers are suffering incredible rates of lead toxicity.  As New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof urges, we must "recognize the catastrophe in Flint as a wake-up call to address not just one city’s lead-poisoning tragedy, but America’s.” (New York Times)

We are already seeing record numbers of children diagnosed with ADHD, autism and mental health ills. Lead is a known neurotoxin that causes brain damage even at extremely low concentrations. The levels of “safe” lead blood levels have steadily been lowered over the years based on updated research findings. As noted expert Dr. Philip Landrigan states, “No safe level of exposure to lead exists.” Current estimates of the annual costs of pediatric lead poisoning stand at a staggering $50 billion. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP) notes “at least 4 million households have children living in them that are being exposed to high levels of lead.” It is estimated that tens of millions have been lead poisoned throughout our country’s history. The addition of the children of Flint to this list is tragic for so many reasons, but perhaps none more so than it did not need to happen. It is a scientifically accepted fact that preventing lead poisoning is the only proven effective strategy to avoid neurological damage. Per the CDCP, “The goal is to prevent lead exposure to children before they are harmed” as the “effects of lead exposure cannot be corrected.” Yes, there are strategies to reduce lead body burdens*, though whether any can undo the damage done is a great source of debate. Unfortunately, access to health care in general is a concern in impoverished urban areas like Flint, and nutritional depletion due to quality food scarcity only exacerbates the health impacts of lead toxicity. 

It will take years, at great cost, to remediate the man-made environmental catastrophe in Michigan. We have long ago irreversibly harmed our planet with widespread lead pollution from gasoline, paint and other industrial sources, forever leaving a legacy of poisoned earth and water. I fear that the cost to the children of Flint is beyond measure if not beyond repair, and that we have failed a generation of those most in need of our care.

Note: Despite the grave concern for what has happened in Flint, it is important to state that the best hope for these children and the countless others exposed to lead is to seek care from an environmentally savvy pediatrician. Regular monitoring of blood lead levels, ensuring ongoing lead exposures are eliminated, and following the strategies outlined below optimizes children’s chances to reduce their lead levels and prevent further damage.

EPA Strategies To Combat Lead Poisoning

 

  • Make sure your children eat healthy, low-fat foods high in iron, calcium, and vitamin C.
     
  • Get your children tested for lead, even if they seem healthy.  [Testing is routinely done in pediatric offices at age one and two.]
     
  • Get your home tested for lead if it was built before 1978.
     
  • Call 1-800-424-LEAD for more information.
     
  • Always wash your hands before eating.
     
  • Wash children’s hands, bottles, pacifiers, and toys.
     
  • Do not use imported pottery to store or serve food.
     
  • Let tap water run for one minute before using.
     
  • Use only cold water for making your baby’s formula, drinking, and cooking.
     
  • Regularly clean floors, windowsills, and other surfaces using wet methods that control dust.
     
  • Wipe or remove shoes before entering your house.
     
  • If you rent, it is your landlord’s job to keep paint in good shape? Report peeling or chipping paint to your landlord and call your health department if the paint is not repaired safely.
     
  • Take precautions to avoid exposure to lead dust when remodeling or renovating.
     
  • Don’t try to remove paint yourself!

 

dr_rosen_bio_pic_3-6-14Lawrence Rosen, MD is an integrative pediatrician and co-author of Treatment Alternatives for Children. He is the founder of the Whole Child Center, one of the country’s first green and integrative pediatric practices, and he serves as Medical Advisor to The Deirdre Imus Environmental Health Center®.  Dr. Rosen’s academic credentials include positions as past Chair of the AAP Section on Integrative Medicine, Clinical Assistant Professor in Pediatrics at UMDNJ, and author of numerous articles and book chapters on integrative pediatrics. He is also the pediatric columnist for Kiwi Magazine and blogs for the Huffington Post. 

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