Health & Science

Flint, and America’s Toxic History With Lead

In light of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, we take a look at some of our team's past reporting on man-made toxins in the environment that may be harming our children.

Flint, and America's Toxic History With Lead

The terrible amounts of lead in the city of Flint, Michigan’s water supply are a tragedy, and one that should remind us that this type of lead exposure via water pipes is a danger that has been documented across the country for more than a hundred years. Municipal employees know the health consequences that can result when lead finds its way into a local water system.

Bill Moyers’ 2002 documentary “Kids and Chemicals,” was an in-depth exploration of toxins in the environment that may be harming our children. Unlike the adverse effects of many of the 75,000 synthetic chemicals and metals introduced in the US over the past 80 years — materials that never have been tested — others, such as lead, are well known to be extremely hazardous.

The Stunning Discovery That Gave Us Unleaded Gasoline

In this video clip, you can see how during the 1970s the lead industry fought new regulations after research showed that even low levels of lead — like those found in leaded gasoline — could be damaging to kids. As part of an unsuccessful campaign to continue putting lead in gas, companies spent years attacking the study’s author, Dr. Herbert Needleman, and his research.

Throughout his career, Needleman continued to study lead poisoning, all the while maintaining that prevention is simple because we know how lead gets into the body and we know the damage it can do to children. Facing up to the problem is in many ways a test of our ability as a society to stand up to industry polluters, pay attention to science and protect our children.

As Needleman himself often pointed out, there are many reasons that lead continues to poison kids: people think the problem has already been solved, that it only impacts poor black children, that it’s the parent’s fault, or that ultimately it’s too pervasive and expensive to fix. These misconceptions, coupled with a lack of interest among pediatric academics and continued efforts by industry to cover up the danger, mean that lead poisoning is a crisis we must continue to face today.



“We Thought There Were Laws to Protect Us”

This second clip looks at the public health problems that occur when polluters aren’t properly punished and local leaders don’t listen to their communities.

When Bill Moyers and his team originally reported this story for NOW in 2001, one in four of the children living near the Doe Run lead smelter in Herculaneum, Missouri, had blood lead levels of 10 micrograms per deciliter or higher. Eventually, the state found that close to half of the 67 children tested had blood lead levels exceeding that level. Today, a level of 5 is cause for serious concern and in fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), there is no safe blood lead level in children. Even low levels of lead have been found to affect IQ, the ability to pay attention and academic achievement. What’s more, these effects of lead exposure are permanent.

As in Flint, it took concerned parents in Herculaneum to bring attention to the toxic chemicals that were harming their children. Leslie and Jack Warden spent years trying to get the EPA and the Missouri Department of Natural Resources to take action. By the time they did, public health recommendations for children had become even more stringent based on the latest science. In 2004, the Wardens and the Missouri Coalition for the Environment filed a successful lawsuit that four years later prompted the EPA to adopt tougher, national air quality standards for lead.

The Doe Run Company has said it would pay $65 million to correct violations of environmental laws at 10 of its lead mining and processing facilities in southeastern Missouri. And in 2013, after 121 years in operation, the Doe Run lead smelter in Herculaneum shut down completely: the company decided that under the requirements of the Clean Air Act, it would be too expensive to install the necessary pollution control technologies to reduce the emission of lead and sulfur dioxide.

You can watch the documentary in full at »