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Leading the charge against lead poisoning

Published: April 15, 2011
Section: Opinions


You know what scares me? Nuclear explosions. I mean, there was always risk, but the situation in Japan really puts a spotlight on the need for rigorous inspection of our nuclear power plants. Luckily for us, the Massachusetts government spends money every year on a set of programs given the oh-so-functional name: “Environmental Health Assessment and Compliance.”

Sure, this money goes to inspecting nuclear facilities and dealing with radiological hazards. It also pays for food and drug protection, as well as consumer protection, making sure that our toys don’t have lead or toxins in them. We can all agree that poisoning our children is the opposite of what we want to do.

Lastly, this money goes to lead abatement more generally. Lead poisoning is a serious problem. Unlike many other toxins, the damage caused by lead is neurological. Everyone knows that large amounts of lead mean bad news, especially for children. I’d like to take a moment here to thank and congratulate the state of Massachusetts. They have done a good job of stopping egregious levels of poisoning. In Boston, for example, the number of cases bad enough to count as “official lead poisoning” dropped from 5,590 cases in 1993 to 163 cases through the first nine months of 2010. That’s the good news.

This is the bad news: There are many children who have large amounts of lead in their bloodstream but not enough to qualify as officially poisoned. These children likely have lost an average of seven to eight IQ points; are likelier to have ADHD and behavior problems; and are likelier to be juvenile delinquents. This is a problem. Some neurobiologists studying the issue have concluded that no level of lead ingestion is safe for children and definitely not the level we’ve agreed to so far.

The city of Detroit just completed a large study of their entire student population. We’ll get back to Massachusetts in a minute, but let’s first see what the latest research can teach us. Of 39,000 children tested in the Detroit Public Schools, 22,755 had a history of lead poisoning. With this large sample size, the scientists were able to make very accurate statistical inferences. Their findings: The higher the lead blood levels, the lower the test scores. Children in special education programs were more likely to have lead poisoning. Sixty percent of those testing below-average had lead poisoning.

We are setting up our children to fail.

The best studies on the economic benefits of lead abatement have spanned the country as a whole, not focusing on Massachusetts. To quote one paper: “Lead-safe window replacement in all pre-1960 U.S. housing would yield net benefits of at least $67 billion, which does not include many other benefits. These other benefits … include avoided Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, other medical costs of childhood lead exposure, avoided special education, and reduced crime and juvenile delinquency in later life.” The money we put into lead abatement saves money for our education, justice, medical and juvenile delinquency systems. The money we put into lead abatement gives children an equal chance to succeed. It just makes sense.

Right now, the Massachusetts legislature is marking up the budget. All this—lead abatement, nuclear inspection, consumer protection, food and drug protection, radiological inspection—is funded by one tiny piece of budget, called a line item. The line item number is 4510-0600. Right now, they are thinking of giving all these programs something to the tune of $3.2 million. It’s not nearly enough. In 2001, for example, they used $6 million (adjusted for inflation).

Protecting us from nuclear explosions—and children from brain-destroying toxins—is important. It is important that we do something to make sure that this protection happens. Please, could you call your representative in the Massachusetts legislature, and ask him or her to return line item 4510-0600 to 2001 levels?