One of Congress's Most Damaging (and Racist) Budget Cuts That Flew Under the Radar
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For Christmas this year, Congress gave the nation's urban children a gift that will keep on giving -- a 94 percent cut in funds for lead-poisoning prevention. Once a child is poisoned by toxic lead, permanent brain damage reduces I.Q., lowers grades in school, and diminishes self-control. This, in turn, can lead to frustration, a sense of failure, impulsiveness, aggression, and, for some, potentially even violence, crime, and prison. (More on lead and prisons in a moment.)
Lead is a soft, grey metal with many practical uses, from bathroom pipes to bullets. Unfortunately, it is highly toxic to humans. Despite eons of knowledge about the toxicity of lead, during most of the 20th century Congress allowed the paint and gasoline industries to lace their products with millions of tons of the stuff, which of course ended up in the environment where much of it still remains available to poison unsuspecting children. Urban neighborhoods are full of lead today, in soil and in paint flaking off old buildings. Low-income families are hardest hit because they tend to live in old buildings poorly maintained.
With a peculiar mix of frugality and cruelty, Congress's $1 trillion spending bill for 2012 shrank a small ($30 million per year) federal lead-poisoning-prevention program to a minuscule $2 million annual effort, a 94 percent cut. And it's no surprise to anyone that the children harmed by this grinch move are mostly city kids, which means they're mostly African-American and Hispanic. The nation's medical establishment has been reporting excessive lead in urban children (75 percent of them of color) since 1952 -- so we have 59 years of studies, all showing the same thing. Therefore, in this rare instance, Congress relied on the best available science and knew exactly what it was doing. It was saddling hundreds of thousands of urban children with persistent cognitive damage and elevated blood pressure for life.
Less than 2 weeks after Congress delivered its toxic Christmas gift, a federal Advisory Committee on Lead Poisoning Prevention recommended that the official standard for declaring a child poisoned by lead should be cut in half. The Advisory Committee on Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (ACCLPP) issued its report Jan. 4, recommending that the official definition of "elevated blood lead levels" should be reduced by half, from its present 10 units to 5. The definition of a unit is very geeky -- one microgram of lead in one deciliter of blood, written ug/dL. A microgram is a millionth of a gram and there are 28 grams in an ounce. A deciliter is a tenth of a liter and a liter is about a quart.
Even as it was recommending a standard of 5, the ACCLPP committee emphasized that even 5 is not safe. In its report, the Committee repeated several times that the only safe level of lead in a child's blood is zero. The main effect of lead is to impair cognition, which is usually measured (after age 5) by an I.Q. test. Many studies confirm that any amount of lead reduces a child's I.Q. to some degree. (For more confirmation on this see the following studies: Binns, 2007; Bellinger, 2008b; Canfield, 2003; CDC 2004; Chiodo, 2004; Needleman, 2004; Rogan, 2003; Schwartz, 1994.)
The body of a healthy 2-year-old contains about 10 deciliters of blood -- in plain English, one liter ( Russell, 1949). At 5 micrograms per deciliter, that child would carry a total of 50 micrograms of lead in his or her blood. Fifty micrograms is a speck. If you took one adult aspirin tablet and crushed it into 8000 equal pieces, one piece would weigh 50 micrograms. So, yes, lead is a potent poison. Such "low" levels of lead are harmful because, as the human body evolved, there just wasn't much lead in the environment, so we never evolved ways to detoxify or eliminate it from our bodies quickly. Based on careful analysis of ancient bones, several studies have shown that the average lead in the blood of pre-industrial humans was 0.016 ug/dL ( Flegal, 1992). Therefore, U.S. children with 5 ug/dL in their blood have 300 times as much lead as pre-industrial humans. So "low" levels of lead, like the recommended 5 ug/dL, aren't really low at all, in an evolutionary or biological sense.