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Sierra Magazine
Lay of the Land

Global Warming | Quote Unquote | Bioprospecting | Lead Poisoning | Green Banking


Get the Lead Out:
Activists target polluters, negligent landlords

When Melissa Gardner's son was four years old, a test showed that he had too much lead in his blood. The test turned out to be wrong, but the scare inspired her to fight for families who weren't so lucky.

Childhood lead poisoning is rampant in Gardner's hometown of Omaha, where ASARCO operated one of the country's largest lead refineries for almost 100 years. After a successful lawsuit by local citizens, the multibillion-dollar mining company shut down its Omaha plant in 1997. The refinery is no more, but its toxic legacy--lead, zinc, and arsenic discharged into the soil and groundwater--remains. "More than one third of all children tested in the area near the plant have lead poisoning," says Gardner, chair of the Sierra Club's Missouri Valley Group.

Nationwide, 4.4 percent of preschoolers--890,000 children--suffer from lead poisoning, a condition that has been linked to learning disabilities, reduced IQ and attention span, stunted growth, and aggressive behavior. While industrial facilities such as the ASARCO plant--and 70 percent of Superfund sites--pollute surrounding communities with lead, most children are poisoned by lead-based paint and lead-contaminated dust in their own homes. Lead paint was banned for residential use in 1978, but it persists in almost two-thirds of U.S. houses.

"Lead poisoning is one of the most common environmental health problems for children," says Bruce Lanphear, a pediatrician at Children's Hospital Medical Center in Cincinnati. 'Elevated blood levels of lead have an adverse effect on virtually every organ in the body.'

Poor children are eight times more likely to be poisoned than those from more-affluent families, while African-American children are five times more likely to be poisoned than white children. In an effort to combat this environmental injustice, the Missouri Valley Group held two community workshops in November with free lead screening for children and tips for parents on how to keep their homes and yards lead-free. The same month, the group drew 150 people to a town-hall meeting to discuss legislation that would eliminate residential lead hazards and to consider ways to pressure ASARCO to clean up its mess.

Momentum is growing to make companies and landlords take responsibility for lead hazards. Senators Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.) and Jack Reed (D-R.I.) have introduced a bill (S. 1821) that would allow the federal government to sue manufacturers of lead-based paint for the costs of providing housing, education, and medical care to victims of lead poisoning. In October, Rhode Island became the first state to sue the makers of lead paint for the cost of treating affected children and cleaning up homes. Massachusetts already requires landlords to clean up lead hazards, and activists in other states are lobbying their legislators to pass similar laws.

Last year, thanks to the efforts of Wisconsin Citizen Action (WCA), Milwaukee enacted the Community Lead Safe Zones ordinance, which requires pre-1950 rental units in two central-city neighborhoods to be inspected within a year. (Homes built before 1978 often contain lead paint; those built before 1950 almost always do.) Landlords who have maintained their properties well - by cleaning up flaking and peeling paint, for example - will be reimbursed by the city for the costs; those who haven"t will shoulder much of the expense themselves.

'This ordinance is unique because it"s targeted to the parts of the city where it can do the most good, and because it puts the onus on landlords to get their act together,' says Larry Marx, WCA"s executive director.

A landlord"s association spent tens of thousands of dollars fighting the ordinance, but activists prevailed by enlisting the parents of poisoned kids to deliver a powerful message: Stop using children as lead detectors. 'We let children live in toxic houses, then act shocked when they have elevated blood levels of lead,' says pediatrician Lanphear. 'We need to screen houses for lead rather than use children as canaries in coal mines.'

WHAT YOU CAN DO
If your home was built before 1978, it probably contains lead-based paint. Any child under age six who may have been exposed to it should have a blood lead test. Keep areas where children play dust-free and clean by wiping surfaces with soap and warm water. Do not attempt to remove lead-based paint yourself. The Alliance to End Childhood Lead Poisoning provides more suggestions online at www.aeclp.org.

These tips can help reduce ongoing lead exposure, but stopping the lead-poisoning epidemic requires legislative action. Ask your senators to support the Lead Poisoning Expense Recovery Act of 1999 (S. 1821), a bill that would allow the federal government to recover cleanup and medical costs from manufacturers of lead-based paint.

by Jennifer Hattam

For more information, see the Sierra Club's toxics website.


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