Column: To achieve justice, our fight against lead poisoning has to go beyond prevention

June 20, 2022 4:46 am

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The Michigan League for Public Policy was pleased to take part in the most recent annual Lead Education Day sponsored by the Michigan Alliance for Lead Safe Homes (MIALSH). 

Advocates from across the state met with legislators to talk about the impact of lead on our families and communities and solutions that make all of us safer and healthier. Direct lead poisoning prevention and response are critical, but state policymakers also must understand and address lead within a larger context of racial and disability justice.

The League enthusiastically supports MIALSH’s policy priorities to prevent lead exposure, identify affected children, and fund critical remediation work and access to supportive services. 

These include universal lead testing for all kids at ages 1 and 2, state-level authority to oversee the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s Renovation, Repair, and Painting (RRP) Rule to ensure that work in older homes is done safely, and a mandatory lead risk inspection at the point of sale or transfer of any home built before 1978. We also applaud a bipartisan package of House bills to update blood lead reference levels, further physician education about lead poisoning and treatment, and more easily connect affected children to services they need.

But that’s not enough. We can’t remove all lead hazards overnight, and families already affected will deal with the downstream impacts for generations to come. U.S. policymakers did not fully ban lead from residential paint until 1978. With our nation’s long history of race-based housing discrimination, this means that lead exposure has taken its greatest toll on families of color

Policy at all levels of government and ongoing practices in the real estate and lending industries have disproportionately funneled families of color into neighborhoods threatened by industrial pollution, substandard water infrastructure, and older, deteriorating homes with lead-based paint hazards. As a result, Black children are lead poisoned at nearly twice the rate of their white peers

Our historical and ongoing failures in other policy areas magnify the harm to lead-poisoned children, further entrenching racial health and economic disparities. For example, childhood food insecurity leads to nutritional deficiencies that leave space for lead to settle in children’s bodies. 

That’s why the League supports investment in state programs like Double Up Food Bucks and 10 Cents a Meal to help address racial and geographic food access disparities, as well as measures to protect and strengthen the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in the upcoming federal Farm Bill reauthorization.

In our schools, the state underfunds education for disabled students by more than $700 million a year. A more equitable K-12 funding formula would ensure that schools have the resources to meet the needs of students with disabilities, including those affected by lead.

Rather than investing in appropriate healthcare, supportive services and accessibility measures, our society criminalizes disability. Schools discipline disabled children, especially Black and Indigenous kids, more frequently than their peers without disabilities–an especially disturbing factor in the school-to-prison pipeline. Communities of color (in which disability is more prevalent) are more heavily policed than predominantly white communities, contributing to the massive racial and health disparities in our nation’s jails and prisons

People with “invisible” disabilities such as intellectual, developmental or mental health disabilities — all of which can result from lead poisoning — are especially at risk of harm by the criminal legal system. Nearly half of people killed by police are disabled, a number of them — such as Freddie Gray and Korryn Gaines — specifically due to lead poisoning.

That’s why we have to continue funding primary prevention and upstream and downstream measures that improve health and quality of life for the individuals and families who will continue to feel the legacy effects of lead poisoning for years to come. We have to eliminate the layers of policy that punish people for having the misfortune of being exposed to lead. 

To get involved, connect with the Michigan Alliance for Lead Safe Homes and follow the League in our efforts through the state budget, our Kids Count in Michigan project, and other policy work. Lead poisoning is a systemic problem that requires systemic solutions so all children have the opportunity they deserve to lead a healthy, happy life.

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Julie Cassidy
Julie Cassidy

Julie Cassidy is the Michigan League for Public Policy's senior policy analyst. Before that, she spent 14 years working as a legislative analyst for the nonpartisan Senate Fiscal Agency, where she specialized in health, energy and environmental issues.