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Illustration by Maya Chastain

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2020, roughly 2.6 million families in the United States were at risk for lead poisoning due to the presence of lead-based paint in their homes. While this statistic may seem shockingly high, what’s even more alarming is the fact that most of the families at risk for lead poisoning each year are Black families.

Research conducted on the subject over many years has shown that lead poisoning disproportionately affects Black families — particularly Black children — in the United States.

Below, we will explore the history of institutionalized and environmental racism, and how policies influenced by these types of racism lead to increased health issues in Black communities.

To understand why Black communities are disproportionately affected by negative health outcomes, including lead poisoning, it’s important to first understand how institutionalized racism has led to serious health issues within the most vulnerable communities.

After the onset of the Great Depression in 1929, the United States found itself in the midst of a housing crisis. With many companies being unable to build new homes or finish old ones, and homeowners everywhere facing defaulting on their mortgages, the housing market screeched to a halt.

In an effort to ease the housing crisis, the government created the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) in 1934 to oversee policies related to financing, standards, and employment within the housing industry. As part of their role in the management of mortgages, the FHA created the “Underwriting Handbook,” which outlined the regulations and procedures that all lending institutions were subject to follow.

In the “Underwriting Handbook,” neighborhoods were separated into categories according to:

  • occupation
  • income
  • race and ethnicity

According to the handbook:

  • A (green) neighborhoods were racially homogenous (people who shared the same characteristics based on the outlined categories), in high demand, and constantly improving.
  • B (blue) neighborhoods were still desirable to live in but not expected to improve.
  • C (yellow) neighborhoods were considered declining in value.
  • D (red) neighborhoods were considered the most undesirable neighborhoods, many of which were predominantly Black communities.

With the creation of this rating system for neighborhoods came the term “redlining,” in which mortgage appraisers sectioned off the “least desirable” neighborhoods on the map with a red line. In turn, lenders would not approve mortgages in these “red” areas — thus creating a disparity that led to the rapid decline of inner city neighborhoods.

As a result of this form of institutionalized racism, thousands of Black communities around the United States became disproportionately affected by the negative impact of environmental racism.

Environmental racism is the result of institutional policies that lead to a disproportionate number of minority communities being exposed to environmental hazards.

According to the literature, factors such as developmental and municipal policies, facility site planning, and even land-use patterns can lead to this form of racism. Environmental racism is especially pervasive in Black communities because of historical redlining and home segregation.

As a result of institutionalized and environmental racism, communities in “undesirable” neighborhoods are often exposed to environmental pollutants from places such as:

  • highways
  • landfills
  • waste sites
  • even chemical plants

In addition, many of the houses within these neighborhoods end up in decline, which often leads to exposure to other environmental toxins within the home.

An increased prevalence of lead poisoning in Black communities, especially in Black children, is an unequivocal example of environmental racism.

In 2013, the CDC released a report of blood lead levels in children ages 1 to 5 years old, noting that children with a blood lead level of 5 micrograms per deciliter (µg/dL) or higher were at risk of serious adverse health effects.

According to the report, Mexican American children were found to have the lowest average blood lead levels, at 1.9 µg/dL, followed by non-Hispanic white children at 2.4 µg/dL. However, the highest average blood lead levels were non-Hispanic Black children at 5.6 µg/dL, over two times the average blood levels found in white children.

Within the report, low housing quality, dangerous environmental conditions, poor nutrition, and other factors were all cited as reasoning for increased lead poisoning risk — and unfortunately, many of these factors are the direct result of institutional policies that negatively affect Black communities.

In fact, in recent years, the unsafe water situation that occurred in Flint, MI, — which has a population that is 57 percent Black and 42 percent below the poverty line — is a prime example of how these institutional policies can impact communities that experience lower socioeconomic conditions.

The water crisis in Flint, MI

In 2014, the city of Flint changed the water supply from Lake Huron (via the Detroit water system) to the Flint River. Although this move was done in an effort to save money during a state-appointed financial emergency, the pollution of the Flint River led to extreme levels of lead in the water supply.

By 2015, Flint’s water lead levels were found to be 13,200 parts per billion (PPB) — far surpassing both the EPA’s federal lead level of 15 PPB and toxic waste categorization. Although the situation in Flint was so severe that it received nationwide media coverage, the citizens of Flint were exposed to this unsafe drinking water for years before the city addressed and rectified the issue.

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A Black man in Flint, Michigan organizing thousands of bottles of clean drinking water in a community center. Some homes in Flint had to rely on bottled water for years to get safe drinking water, free from lead.
Photography by Tom Williams, Getty Images
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Although Flint has since addressed the horrifying ordeal it put its citizens through, millions of Black families and children all around the United States are still at risk of lead poisoning — and not just from contaminated drinking water.

According to the CDC, some of the other common ways that children are exposed to lead include:

  • paint chips or dust containing lead
  • dust from lead contaminated soil from certain industries
  • traditional cultural products, such as medications and cosmetics
  • certain consumer products
  • parents or adults who bring home lead from certain industries

So how can you recognize when someone has been exposed to unsafe levels of lead?

Unfortunately, lead exposure and lead poisoning can often appear asymptomatic or even mimic other health conditions, which can sometimes make diagnosis difficult.

However, some common symptoms of lead exposure to look out for include:

If you are worried that yourself or a loved one has been exposed to lead or may be exhibiting symptoms of lead poisoning, schedule a visit with your doctor right away to have your blood lead levels checked.

Consequences of lead poisoning in children

While lead poisoning is a condition that can have negative effects in children and adults, children are more susceptible to the harmful impact of lead exposure.

In children, levels as low as 10 µg/dL have been found to cause the following symptoms:

  • delayed growth and physical development
  • impaired brain and nervous system development
  • learning difficulties
  • decreased hearing abilities
  • trouble with speech development
  • behavioral issues at home and school

At higher levels of lead exposure, lead toxicity can lead to:

  • seizures
  • coma
  • even death

And long term, the health consequences of lead exposure throughout childhood can even impact someone’s health as an adult, leading to an increased risk of:

While we know that lead poisoning disproportionately affects certain communities within the United States, there are certain states in which children have been found to have much higher blood lead levels than the national average.

According to the CDC, in 2018, the national average of all children with blood lead levels higher than 5 µg/dL was 2.6 percent. However, states that had a higher percentage than the national average included:

  • Connecticut: 3.6 percent
  • New Hampshire: 3.7 percent
  • Missouri: 3.9 percent
  • Indiana: 4.0 percent
  • Louisiana: 4.2 percent
  • Ohio: 4.4 percent
  • Iowa: 4.5 percent
  • Kansas: 4.7 percent
  • New York: 4.7 percent
  • Vermont: 5.1 percent
  • Maine: 6.0 percent
  • Pennsylvania: 6.6 percent
  • Wisconsin: 6.6 percent

Increased risk factors in these states are the most likely explanation for the large disparity between different states.

These include:

  • higher number of low income households
  • housing that was built before 1978
  • other risk factors linked to institutional policies

When it comes to institutional and environmental racism in the United States, the importance of immediate change cannot be understated.

Millions of Black and other historically marginalized communities in the United States are still being disproportionately affected by the impact of these forms of racism.

Although continuing to screen populations who are at higher risk for lead poisoning is helpful, it’s also important that national, state, and local governments are held accountable for the policies that they enact.

As a country, it starts by not allowing neighborhoods to be segregated, making sure Black communities receive the funding they need to build safe, long-term living conditions, and reducing historically marginalized communities’ exposure to other forms of environmental toxins.