If you saw a little kid about to swallow a small piece of metal, you’d try and stop her. And you wouldn’t be much less alarmed if you saw her smashing the metal up into little bits before swallowing it. You don’t need a neurobiology degree to guess that it’s probably not a great idea for kids to swallow lots of small pieces of metal.
And yet, thanks to the once-extensive use of lead as an additive to both paint and gasoline, this is the situation we find ourselves in — tons of kids all across the country routinely ingesting little bits of lead.
Every once in a while you get a scandal about this, like when Tracy Jan’s investigative scoop revealed an Inspector General report which says HUD “has for years neglected to enforce its own environmental regulations, resulting in lead poisoning of children in at least one public housing development and potentially jeopardizing residents’ health in thousands of other federally subsidized apartments near contaminated site.” And of course, we all remember the spectacle in Flint when some poor decision-making by municipal authorities created a situation where old lead pipes were contaminating the city’s water supply.
But this attention tends to be spasmodic. It also tends to focus on outlier situations which, while genuinely bad, can also create the misimpression that if you don’t live in Flint or scandal-plagued public housing, you’re fine. But the truth is that any neighborhood that’s full of old buildings, that used to have factories nearby, or that had heavy automobile traffic before the 1980s phaseout of leaded gasoline probably has a bunch of lead dust lying around. And while less lead is better than more lead, scientists have not actually discovered a “safe” amount of lead; public health surveillance thresholds are arbitrary, and there are clear signs of harm at the lowest levels.
When we talk about public sector investments that have long-term payoffs, we often think in terms of physical infrastructure. But the benefits to cleaning up lead, though largely invisible, are extremely large. And I hope the presumably forthcoming Biden plan to Build Back Better will feature extensive investment in this area.
Lead is really bad
One of the oddities of the 20th century lead disaster is that scientists were basically aware from the beginning that industry was poised to start spewing neurotoxins all over the place. This is from Beth Gardiner’s book “Choked” about air pollution:
A Yale physiologist named Yandell Henderson had tested tetraethyl lead as a potential nerve agent during World War I, and when GM asked his thoughts on putting it into gasoline [in 1921], he replied with alarm. “Widespread lead poisoning was almost certain to result,” he warned. Later he deemed it the “single greatest question in the field of public health that has ever faced the American public.”
The science was clear: Lead is a powerful neurotoxin. The threat was vividly demonstrated at a New Jersey refinery whose tetraethyl lead operation was known as “the loony gas building” because of its workers’ bizarre behavior — stumbling, memory loss, explosions of rage. After an accident, dozens collapsed, suffering seizures and hallucinations; more than 30 were hospitalized and 5 died.
The companies — writing a playbook polluters would draw on for decades — attacked the science, and paid for some of their own, to argue lead’s dangers were exaggerated. A Standard Oil executive even called tetraethyl lead “a gift of God.”
To put it a little less pejoratively, I think the big hope of humanity on lead over time has been the idea that while the very high concentrations in the loony gas building may be dangerous, surely a bit of lead isn’t so bad.
And initially, the country wasn’t burning all that much gasoline, but after World War II consumption soared as more people got cars and everyone in the Baby Boomer and Generation X cohorts had their minds blasted by toxic heavy metals floating around in the air (sorry but it’s true).
Things began to turn around in the 1970s as the United States established the Environmental Protection Agency and technical analysis began to weigh more heavily in regulatory policy. Lead paint was banned in the ‘70s, and the use of lead in vehicle fuels was progressively phased out in a big series of different regulatory measures.
If you enjoy reading policy content on the internet, you are probably familiar with Kevin Drum’s article linking the rise and fall of violent crime in the United States to leaded gasoline. I highly recommend it, along with this follow-up, but also especially his smaller follow-up posts about residual lead in topsoil because this is the problem we have today.
From Henderson’s time forward, the dangers of lead have been known. But the pious hope is always that there’s some safe amount of lead that we can ignore. The official Centers for Disease Control guidelines recommend interventions for kids who have more than 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood, for example. That’s a nice round number and it also has the happy consequence of certifying that not that many kids are suffering from lead poisoning. But this is not actually accurate. As the CDC itself says, “No safe blood lead level in children has been identified. Even low levels of lead in blood have been shown to affect IQ, ability to pay attention, and academic achievement.”
Kids being over the 10 μg/dL threshold is rare, but over 2% exceed the five μg/dL mark. And the really bad news is that to the extent that scientists are able to measure lower concentrations, they just continue to find evidence of harm.
Braun et al. find that within the range of two to five micrograms of lead per deciliter, more blood lead is associated with higher levels of ADHD.
Then Nigg et al. studied a population with blood levels "slightly below United States and Western Europe population exposure averages, with a mean of 0.73 and a maximum of 2.2 μg/dL," and found that even at this range, more lead means more ADHD.
What’s more, while you can remediate these harms in kids (and certainly should try), the damage doesn’t really ever go away. A well-done study in New Zealand found that “exposure in childhood was significantly associated with lower cognitive function and socioeconomic status at age 38 years. Greater childhood lead exposure was also associated with greater declines in IQ from childhood to adulthood and greater declines relative to parents in occupational socioeconomic status.”
Lead is everywhere!
There’s a significant racial disparity in lead exposure thanks to the disproportionate concentration of Black people in old southern and midwestern urban cores.
But in keeping with there being no known safe level of lead, there is also a very wide range of places with serious lead problems. It’s a huge issue in swathes of rural Maine, for example, which is why Jared Golden, the House Democrat who represents the Trumpy part of the state, is the author of a big lead abatement bill. Because of gentrification dynamics, the distribution of lead problems is also becoming considerably less racially polarized in the northeast — it’s a huge issue in many of the hip parts of Brooklyn. When D.C. tested for lead in our playgrounds, we found contamination scattered around the city.
The big common factor is the age of the built environment.
Modern structures don’t use lead paint, and modern gasoline doesn’t have lead additives. So if you’re in the suburbs of San Antonio, your house is probably pretty new. And critically, so are all the other houses in the neighborhood. There also probably just weren’t many people driving around 40 years ago. But any place that’s old is at risk for lead contamination, because even once we stopped burning leaded gasoline, the old lead didn’t vanish — it just settled into the ground. And the old lead paint continues to degrade and contaminate not just old homes but the surrounding areas. And then there’s the Flint problem, where old municipal water systems use lead pipes.
But even in a relatively low-lead area, having just one contaminated property around really isn’t okay.
We should make a big push against lead
The political conversation around lead seems to have advanced furthest in the field of dealing with old paint in old houses.
Golden’s bill would invest $2.5 billion per year over five years (i.e., $12.5 billion) in screening and lead paint abatement.
Tim Ryan has a bill to spend $100 billion on removing lead paint and lead water pipes.
Ayanna Pressley and Chuy Garcia, who are normally more left-wing than those guys, have what’s actually a much more modest proposal to address lead contamination specifically in public and Section 8 housing.
Julián Castro campaigned on a plan to spend $5 billion per year on all forms of lead abatement but with a focus on paint, reflecting his background at HUD.
Per Elise Gould’s work, the benefits of expensive lead abatement projects are high. She estimated that spending up to $11 billion on lead paint removal generates $17 to $221 billion in benefits, mostly in the form of higher lifetime earnings with commensurate higher tax revenues and lower health care expenditures.
But to me, what’s so impressive is that the range of benefits of lead reduction is almost limitless in scope (though obviously not in quantity). Jessica Wolpaw Reyes finds fewer teen pregnancies and less teen drinking associated with lead abatement. Anna Aizer, Janet Currie, Peter Simon, and Patrick Vivier took the interesting step of looking at students in Rhode Island who were well below 5 μg/dL and found that lead still had a big impact on reading scores. We’re talking about all-around better cognitive functioning and less anti-social behavior.
Given all that, I’d favor an even more ambitious push than Ryan’s legislation. Howard Mielke’s work suggests that you’d need about $100 billion to tackle the most serious lead soil problems — doubling the cost of his initiative.
But why not do it? Obviously, on just a basic logistical level, there are limits to how quickly lead remediation can be done. But the benefits are large, and they compound over time.
The focus on pipes and paint makes sense in that the scope of these issues is better understood, and we know exactly how to fix them. The soil issue is a bit murkier. But that’s all the more reason to start investing funds in widespread soil testing in all kinds of populated areas and giving grants for pilot programs to experiment with different remediation methods, and then start scaling up the best ones.
Let’s build back better
Back when he was Vice President, Joe Biden oversaw a significant investment in lead abatement as part of his duties related to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. But the amount of money involved in that program was tiny compared to the total need. And as a candidate, Biden did not go in for the brief fad of presidential contenders releasing lead abatement plans.
But the time is right to be thinking about this because, by all accounts, the White House is cooking up some kind of multi-trillion dollar bill that will follow the COVID-19 relief package currently in Congress.
The way they explained this back in January is that the first bill would be a “rescue” measure, and the second would be a “recovery” plan. Now I hear the phrase “build back better” (from the campaign) more than “recovery.” Either way, it will supposedly involve a lot of money and a focus on infrastructure issues — especially ones with some kind of environmental tie-in.
Lead fits in really perfectly here thematically.
Beyond that, if you’ve read my articles “Fixing the Mass Transit Crisis” and “Fancy Stations Make Mass Transit Harder,” I’m actually a bit of an infrastructure skeptic. America doesn’t need more highways. And absent serious reforms, money spent on non-highway projects, while good in theory, is unlikely to be all that amazing in practice. I don’t want to preemptively denounce something I haven’t seen — maybe Biden’s team will come up with amazing ideas! — but I’m instinctively skeptical.
Lead removal, in contrast to concrete-intensive transportation projects, is a really good buy even at real-world prices. And in a fundamental sense, the human infrastructure it addresses — our basic neurological functioning and cognitive ability — is the most important infrastructure of all. Even the biggest lead plan in Congress isn’t big enough. And if we’re going to throw trillions of dollars around, we ought to really solve the lead problem.