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BLACK CHILDREN ARE MOST AT RISK FOR HIGH BLOOD LEAD LEVELS

These findings on blood lead are impacted by various other systemic issues facing Black communities in the U.S., in addition to further contributing to them. 

Deniz “Dersim” Yeter is an undergraduate Nursing student working and studying in Kansas. Their team recently completed a study on racial disparities in blood lead levels among children under the age of 6 in the U.S., solidifying that Black children are at disproportionately high risk regardless of socio-economic status or other risk factors. This study builds upon a Centers for Disease Control (CDC) nationwide survey of blood lead levels from 1976-1980, which they believe did not fully examine racial disparity within risk factors for early childhood lead exposure. 

“During early childhood, Black children had about 1 microgram per decaliter (µg/dL) more lead (Pb) in their blood than both white and Hispanic children. On average, Black children presented with blood lead levels of 2.8 micrograms per decaliter, while white or Hispanic children only presented with 1.8 to 1.9. Black children were also 3 times more likely to present with the highest blood lead levels — an elevated blood lead level of 5 micrograms per decaliter or higher. This is a national condition in the U.S. that represents the circumstances for all Black children between the 12-year survey period from 1999 to 2010 that we studied.”

The study was performed by retrieving publicly available data from the CDC in order to examine ~600 Black children, with ~2200 white and Hispanic children grouped together because the two groups (which often overlap) present with similar blood lead levels with no significant difference. 

“The main focus of the study was looking at racial disparities within risk factors for blood lead such as older housing, poverty, and other risk factors. For instance, our statistical modeling looked at how much worse the outcomes in blood lead were for Black children residing in poverty compared to their white or Hispanic peers who also resided in poverty.”  

After encountering a Reuters report that noted high rates of elevated blood lead levels of 5 micrograms per decaliter or higher across the U.S., Dersim’s team became interested in determining the reasons behind these elevated levels. 

We found significant racial disparities in every single risk factor that we tested. [The only] conclusion is that we are leaving Black children substantially behind in our efforts to address and prevent lead exposure or remove lead hazards.”

“This report from December 2017 found thousands of locales across the U.S. that reported higher elevated blood lead level rates than Flint, Michigan did at the peak of their lead water crisis between 2014 to 2016. We quickly realized that a lot of the findings from Reuters were involving predominately Black urban cities in the Midwest and Northeast. Because the discrepancy was so wide, we hypothesized that risk was unequal between Black children and their peers. So we established a study methodology and then began testing risk factor groups to see if racial disparities were present. We found significant racial disparities in every single risk factor that we tested. [The only] conclusion is that we are leaving Black children substantially behind in our efforts to address and prevent lead exposure or remove lead hazards.”

Dersim believes that there has never been a significant racial analysis with this kind of data before because of a lack of funding or emphasis on health disparity research that includes racial or ethnic disparities. The questions that they ask in their study are ones that Dersim says have fallen by the wayside and gone largely unconsidered in academia, but that isn’t because Black scholars, researchers, and others are not interested in public health research and examining racial disparities in health outcomes. 

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“In my mind, it would have to do with how the granting system neglects this, how other researchers do not fully appreciate its importance, and simply because academia and research is not representative of the populations it serves. This becomes really glaringly obvious when so many who lead the research and receive grant funding are not Black.” 

“This is compounded by the fact that we are not supporting Black students to get into this field or support their education and costs. I commend all the researchers who do this important work on health disparities and racial/ethnic disparities in health outcomes — but I’ll be the first to admit that my team and I had a great deal of difficulty conducting our own study and putting it into context because we do not come from the African-American community and have not lived these experiences.” 

“Much of my own knowledge and awareness of these complex issues came from reading other authoritative experts from this community who write about this issue, in addition to just speaking with Black activists from these neglected and lead-contaminated areas including those who work on this very issue of preventing toxic lead exposures or agitating on safe housing rights… What’s needed is a sense of awareness, urgency, and action from the larger academic community that is immensely lacking at this moment in time.”

The neurodevelopmental effects of high blood lead levels in children—especially at more than the 5 micrograms per decaliter that Dersim’s team studied—include loss of IQ points, behavioral issues, and impaired cognition, attention span, and memory retention. Lead exposure in childhood impacts the cerebellum, hippocampus, and prefrontal cerebral cortex as they grow, and can later result in decreased brain volume in adulthood. It can also cause anemia, which can impair brain development and result in lasting issues, like stunted development and growth. All of these things contribute to the upholding of negative stereotypes about the inherent animality and lack of intelligence in Black children.

“These are bright and beautiful kids that just need some extra care, support, and accommodation, and there is absolutely no reason they cannot be afforded their own personhood.” 

“One of the biggest concerns we have in the field of childhood lead exposure is just the stigma attached to these kids. We malign them and don’t provide support and kill any potential they have. It’s disgusting… These are bright and beautiful kids that just need some extra care, support, and accommodation, and there is absolutely no reason they cannot be afforded their own personhood.” 

The same kind of toxic lead exposure in adults is associated with hypertension (high blood pressure) and kidney disease, both of which disproportionately impact Black folks in the U.S. Due to anti-Blackness and fatphobia, both of these are often blamed on the presumed “poor diet” and “unhealthy habits” of Black people without further thought, especially given their association with diabetes and heart disease, which lead exposure can also accelerate

Even though we recognize that the use of IQ points to determine intelligence is rooted in white ascendant ideals, it’s important to include it here. IQ is often used to further eugenicist myths about differences in inherent intelligence among different races and to further educational and economic inequities as a tool of racial containment and immobility. 

“The CDC and American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) have officially stated that there is no safe detectable level of lead in the blood of young developing children. In fact, the greatest loss of IQ points happened between 2 to 4 micrograms per decaliter — which is below the elevated blood lead levels of more than 5 micrograms per decaliter that we focused on. We also looked at continuous blood lead levels and found Black children presented with an extra 1 micrograms per decaliter of blood lead compared to their white or Hispanic peers.” 

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“It might not seem like much, but this 1 microgram difference in blood lead can mean the difference between IQ points being lost or not, and then translate into several thousands of dollars in personal wealth lost for Black children. Collectively, this can mean several billions of dollars lost in Black wealth across the U.S. each and every year. Currently, my team and I are examining this burden and see how bad the disparity in IQ point losses and the associated losses to wealth from this.”

Considering these effects, it raises questions about how this could produce, or rather ensure, cyclical, generational poverty and traumas among Black families. It’s certainly helping to widen the already drastic racial wealth gap, and it’s blatantly yet another remnant of the institution of chattel slavery. These elevated blood lead levels are disproportionately impacting Black children (and adults, by extension) in poor, Black neighborhoods with older housing. When we consider all of this, it becomes clear that these issues are institutional and structural, undeniably connected with other race-based oppressions. Dersim believes that the principle issue is lack of housing access, the undervaluing of Black housing, and not providing assistance for incredibly cost-prohibitive lead paint removal.

“Given how marginalized and vulnerable Black children already are… this is really the last thing you’d want to find. Black individuals and families already have diminished returns with increasing wealth and education across the board with a variety of issues. This includes health concerns and the findings of health disparities. Black people with an advanced college degree do not even see the same economic or health returns as white people who did not graduate high school. Health risks continue to persist for Black people even as they climb the socio-economic ladder and reach higher income levels.”

“This is just another issue related to intergenerational poverty, trauma, health disparities, and the fallout of systemic institutionalized racism.”

“Black children are already being born with incredible disadvantages and risks that should have been addressed long ago, but continue in the face of indifference and inaction from everyone outside of the community and those in positions of authority who could implement local, state, and federal relief. This is just another issue related to intergenerational poverty, trauma, health disparities, and the fallout of systemic institutionalized racism.”

Most Americans know about the Flint water crisis by now and how neglected Flint residents are by the state. What many don’t know is that Flint is not an anomaly. In Flint, the toxic lead exposure that we mostly talk about comes from contaminated drinking water from deteriorating leaded household service lines. Beyond this, early childhood lead exposure across the U.S. often comes from deteriorated leaded paint in older housing—units built before 1978, but especially in those constructed prior to 1950. It’s also found in contaminated soil and air pollution from lead-emitting industries which intentionally set up shop in or near Black communities.  

In all of this, Black folks are overwhelmingly exposed to more lead contamination in their environments due to poorer conditions and inadequate housing. In metropolitan areas like Detroit, lead-emitting industries are primarily located in and are currently relocating more businesses to predominantly Black neighborhoods, regardless of the average income levels of these neighborhoods. Furthermore, increasingly high concentrations of lead soil contamination correlate with the increase of Black populations in Alabama, Louisiana, and South Carolina—states where lead-contaminated soils are largely confined to predominantly Black areas. This is environmental racism. 

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Flint wasn’t even the canary in the coal mine, because we’ve known this since the late 1970s. If we acted then, we wouldn’t have had the water crises of Flint beginning in 2014 or Washington D.C. beginning in 2001 — both of which are predominantly Black cities. It’s no coincidence that health department officials in Michigan asked questions in email correspondences to one another of whether Flint is even a community we should care about. It’s the cost of indifference, neglect, and writing off these communities. It’s why we still see Black children and predominately Black areas so incredibly overburdened by this issue of childhood lead exposure. There is no relief for these communities.” 

“Even worse, our institutional responses in childhood lead prevention and lead hazard removal are colorblind and do not accommodate for the fact that Black children are disproportionately at risk. This allows the racial disparities that we’ve seen since the late 1970s to persist when we only screen kids based on whether they are poor or live in older housing. From our national findings, it is apparent that Black children are 2 to 6 times more likely to present with the highest blood lead levels in the same risk group of poverty or older housing when compared to their white or Hispanic peers.” 

Dersim is also adamant about acknowledging that the government’s lack of care and response to the blood lead levels is effectively chemical genocide. The issue of elevated blood lead levels in Black citizens is yet another argument for reparations being paid to disproportionately burdened generations of Black people residing in the U.S. 

“Black individuals and communities are exposed to significantly more pollution than those that are white — and lead is only one of those pollutants.” 

“Reparations are certainly owed on this. We’ve known for over a decade now that these blood lead levels translate into lost IQ points and lost lifetime income for children. The true cost to Black children spanning back not just to the late 1970s when we first started testing kids across the U.S., but since the lead issue began in the early 1900s with leaded paint and other sources of exposure. The true costs to Black wealth and potential are probably staggering and astronomical. However, we don’t know. No one has looked at this specific issue, so I can only give my best guess. Even a crude estimate of the costs during our 12-year study period, between 1999 to 2010, is well into the billions of dollars. We just don’t know how bad it is. Currently, my team and I are re-examining the 1999 to 2010 data that we have just to answer this question.”

“Allowing this to continue for over four decades even with what we knew back then… in my mind, this really is a form of chemical genocide. And I do not say that in a belittling way, as a Kurdish individual whose people were targeted by U.S. chemical weapons supplied to Saddam Hussein.”

“What makes matters worse is that toxic lead exposure is only one issue of countless others on the subject of environmental racism and injustice related to toxic exposures. Black individuals and communities are exposed to significantly more pollution than those that are white — and lead is only one of those pollutants.” 

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Dersim and the other team members wanted to include Black researchers to work on their study and actively tried to bring several people on board. However, everyone they approached was already stretched too thin and overloaded with other work. Because they were unable to secure any Black colleagues for this study, it was important to ask how they were honoring and recognizing the work of Black folks. 

“At every turn possible, my team and I are trying to center the amazing Black activists who have been agitating on these issues for as long as they have existed. They deserve attention, they deserve to be taken seriously, and they deserve the action and relief they continue to demand. This is also an issue of academia not being representative with regards to Black people, other people of color, women, immigrants, and other disenfranchised and marginalized communities most affected by these issues.”

“It is really cruel and ignorant to tell a Black family they need to spend up to $40,000 to remove lead paint hazards, remove lead-contaminated soil, or replace old leaded household pipes delivering drinking water.”

As for solutions, Dersim has some ideas. The first would be to recognize that being Black in the U.S. has essentially been made into a risk factor for disproportionately high (early childhood) lead exposure due to institutional racism. The CDC has the power to do this at any time, and they could implement guidelines for states and locales to properly address the issue. The second step, of course, would be to act. Only through action can the disparity gaps be closed and healthier lives be created for Black households bearing the brunt of this crisis. The thing is—that would require powerful institutions to acknowledge how deeply anti-Blackness is embedded in our societal systems. 

“Not much will be done on this front if we don’t adequately fund these programs that prevent childhood lead exposure and remove lead hazards. These are horrendously underfunded programs that have never been fully funded — let alone in any significant manner. Each year, there is only federal funding to provide relief to maybe 100 or 200 households who need lead hazards removed. The number of affected houses is estimated to be around 3.6 million. Most of the onus to address these issues is falling upon the states which are cash-strapped since the Great Recession and do not prioritize this issue. When all that fails, the burden then falls upon homeowners to cover these costs which can range from $5,000 to $40,000 depending on how many lead hazards are present.”

“It is really cruel and ignorant to tell a Black family they need to spend up to $40,000 to remove lead paint hazards, remove lead-contaminated soil, or replace old leaded household pipes delivering drinking water. Especially when they are dealing with no outside support, their housing prices are substantially undervalued, and housing and lending discrimination continues to persist to this day — you name it.”

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“Another solution is to simply test ALL young children between ages 1 to 5 years. Then we will begin to understand the true extent of these disparities, we will eliminate the bias of what children we choose to test, and then we can identify the remaining hotspots in the U.S. where communities are the most impacted. It’s hard to adequately respond when you have an incredibly incomplete picture of who is being impacted.”

What resonates with Dersim the most after completing this study is the heartbreaking reality of sheer apathy for Black children and all Black people’s health, well-being, and lives. 

“The failure on childhood blood lead for Black children reflects this country’s failure on Black communities in general.”

“I think the risk to Black children has been just an accepted fact of life and written off for more than four decades. Since then, no one has been catering policy to address the fact that Black children are disproportionately affected across all socio-economic groups. Being a Black child is an infinitely worse risk for higher blood lead levels than residing in poverty. That is astounding and should NOT be acceptable. Many see this as a ‘Black issue’ and it gets ignored. If a sense of concern and urgency for these kids was embraced, these disparities would have ended decades ago. Black and white children would have the same risks. However, since this touches on a variety of other ‘controversial’ subjects such as housing rights, racial equity, the theft of Black wealth, and the further marginalization of Black people and predominately Black communities — it’s even easier for others to dismiss it. The failure on childhood blood lead for Black children reflects this country’s failure on Black communities in general.”

“I understand that Black empowerment is central to the issue of blood lead. Black activists have organized on this issue for decades. They are still active in these affected communities agitating on safe housing rights, addressing childhood lead prevention, and removing lead hazards. We should not only be listening to them but acting on this information. These communities need to be empowered because these issues just continue to be ignored and met with inaction. This speaks to the lack of political capital and political disenfranchisement of these communities. Their power to resolve these issues is constantly attacked and diminished. So, to me, it’s pretty simple — Black people need to be empowered on these issues and lead on them. They need to be in positions of power to respond to their needs. Only then can other issues of funding, action, and research truly be addressed.”

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Sherronda (she/they) is an essayist, editor, and storyteller writing pop culture and media analysis through a Black feminist lens with historical and cultural context. They often find themselves transfixed by Black monstrosity, survival, and resistance in the horror genre and its many fantastical narratives, especially zombie lore. Read more of their work at Black Youth Project.

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