By Carlton Waterhouse
The environmental tragedy of Flint, Michigan, has returned environmental justice to the national spotlight. After the city of Flint changed its water source and treatment methods, lead-lined pipes leached harmful levels of lead into residents’ drinking water. As a result, the number of children within the city with harmfully elevated lead levels in their blood doubled. However, the lead crisis is not limited to the children of Flint. Many Indiana children suffer from elevated blood lead levels and the long-term harms they cause.
Because of the way lead is distributed in the human body, childhood lead exposure causes irreversible developmental injuries. Numerous studies make clear that children with blood lead levels elevated above a certain amount suffer permanent adverse cognitive and physiological harm. Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the physician who sounded the alarm in Flint that finally garnered the attention necessary to invoke government action, writes in the February 2016 issue of the American Journal of Public Health, Volume 106, Issue 2: “Lead is a potent neurotoxin, and childhood lead poisoning has an impact on many developmental and biological processes, most notably intelligence, behavior, and overall life achievement.”
Sadly, many Indiana children are at an even greater risk than children in other states for lead poisoning.
Childhood lead exposure comes primarily from three pathways: indoor lead-based paint and dust, outdoor lead in dust and soils, and drinking water. In all three cases, children in urban areas with industrial histories and highways face the greatest risk. Old housing stock built before 1978, found throughout Indiana, poses a high and well-recognized risk. However, recent scientific studies show that Indiana children face another significant risk from the state’s industrial past. Urban areas with historic industrial uses face a chronic problem with lead. As a consequence of past industrial operations, lead is present in the dust and soils of many cities like Gary, Indianapolis and others. The third source of concern we have learned more about recently is in drinking water. While fewer children are exposed to lead though these means than the foregoing sources, Flint’s crisis shows how critical the close monitoring and protection of our drinking water is from the lead that is present in old pipes, solder and fixtures.
Indiana has given significant attention to the issue of lead-based paint in homes and currently receives a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for testing children on Medicaid for elevated blood lead. Unfortunately, the state currently tests less than 40 percent of the children called for under the grant and has no program to address the significant lead risks in the soils and dusts. To be sure, childhood lead exposure has drastically decreased over the last 50 years both in Indiana and across the country. These gains, however, do not lessen the issues faced by the parents and children suffering the irreversible harms caused by lead.
This is Indiana’s environmental justice challenge. In Flint, government officials had knowledge of this problem and failed to address it, in part, because it was not a priority. That failure to prioritize the needs of those community members despite the harms and risks they faced fits a pattern of environmental decision-making in America that subjects all low-income Americans and people of color across income levels to greater environmental risks and harms from pollution. The label “environmental justice” highlights the inequalities experienced in the exposure, harms, benefits, and decision-making about environmental protection. Flint, which has a majority of African-American residents and one of the highest poverty rates in the state of Michigan, exemplifies the type of environmental injustices that still pervade our society. In Indiana, Lake County and Marion County feature the most highly concentrated populations of children with or at risk of lead poisoning. Unsurprisingly, these counties also have the largest populations of African-Americans and Latinos in the state.
If the state wants to address this problem, it must prioritize it by taking three steps. First, it must lower screening levels from 10mg/dl to 5mg/dl as recommended by CDC as necessary to protect children’s health. Next, a soil and dust lead remediation program would enable Indiana to address the persistent and unaddressed lead contamination that injures thousands of Indiana children. Lastly, the state should increase screening to 100 percent of the most at-risk children. Through these efforts, Indiana can face its environmental justice challenge and save thousands of its children from the devastating harms experienced in Flint.•
• Professor Carlton Waterhouse is a Dean’s Fellow at the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law. For a more in-depth discussion of this issue, read his article with Ravay Smith “The Lingering Life of Lead Pollution: An Environmental Justice Challenge for Indiana,” 49 Indiana L. Rev. 99 (2015). The opinions expressed are those of the author.