Why Teachers Should Care about Flint

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Maybe you’re not so interested in lead exposure in children.

I have to admit I wasn’t, even though I’d known for a long time that it’s an important risk factor for challenging behavior. We’d written about it in Challenging Behavior in Young Children, but somehow it seemed less sexy to me than other risk factors like temperament or media violence.

But now that I’ve actually spent some time learning about what happened in Flint, I’ve become obsessed.

I notice all the tiny places where the paint is chipped or peeling in my house, which was built long before lead paint was banned.

I remember how we lived in this house with our 4-year-old daughter while our painter meticulously sanded each wall, creating clouds of dust that were certainly heavily contaminated with lead.

I recollect that the city only recently replaced the old lead water line connecting us to the central water supply.

I can picture my children and grandchildren playing with our wonderful old Fisher Price toys whose colorful plastic—unbeknownst to us—was filled with lead.

Fortunately, my family is all right. But a great many other people aren’t as lucky, so I think you should know the story of lead and how it affects us all.

 The story of lead

Once upon a time—when cars ran on leaded gasoline, buildings were covered with lead-based paint, and water came into our homes, schools, and work places through lead pipes—the air and water were filled with lead. But about 40 years ago, people began to understand that lead wasn’t very good for our health, and governments passed some laws to remedy the situation.

In 1975, we started phasing out leaded gasoline, and in 1978, we banned lead-based paint. By 2006, the average level of lead in children’s blood had fallen dramatically.

Since we thought we’d solved the lead problem, our political will—and funding—for getting rid of lead evaporated. In 2012, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) saw its budget for the prevention of lead poisoning chopped from $30 million to $2 million.

We were wrong        

But it turns out we were wrong. The lead from our years of using leaded gas is still resting comfortably in our soil, especially in the inner cities. Old lead paint remains on the walls and woodwork of 24 million apartments and houses where 4 million children live. And as schools in Newark, Camden, Ithaca, Baltimore, Los Angeles, Washington, DC, and too many other cities have found, lead is often still in our plumbing.

In the meantime the World Health Organization (WHO) has determined that no level of lead is really safe, especially for children 5 years and younger. As they play, they’re much more likely to mouth or swallow its miniscule particles in dust, and their rapidly developing brains and bodies absorb a far greater percentage of it than adults’ do.

Children of color and children living in poverty are particularly vulnerable because they’re apt to live in older lead-filled neighborhoods in buildings in poor condition, and they may not be able to access or afford the nutritious food—high in calcium, iron, and vitamin C—that can slow down lead absorption. Even upper- and middle-class children whose families are renovating an older dwelling may be at risk.

What does lead do?

What does lead do when it enters the body? First of all, it affects the brain by damaging the developing prefrontal cortex—the thinking, planning, decision-making part of the brain—along with the white matter that enables cells in the brain and nervous system to communicate effectively.

As a result, children exposed to lead may lose several IQ points and suffer from impaired executive function (that is, they may have trouble with emotional regulation, impulse control, verbal reasoning, and mental flexibility). They are also at increased risk for learning disabilities, ADHD, aggressive behavior, and arrests for violent crime in adulthood.

Lead exposure also hurts school achievement, including readiness for kindergarten and reading. A large study in Chicago found that 75 percent of third graders had such poisonously high blood lead levels that they were likely to fail grade 3 and score badly on standardized tests—enough to make a difference between passing and failing. Not surprisingly, the greatest impact was on non-Hispanic African Americans, followed by Hispanics.

Lead can also affect the rest of the body—the cardiovascular, immune, hormone, and gastrointestinal systems—and is linked to anemia, hypertension, and kidney problems.

In case you were wondering, these effects are irreversible.

We could actually prevent future generations from being poisoned by lead if only we had the desire and the money. The amounts involved are gigantic, but so are the returns. One study estimated that for every dollar spent we’d gain $221 by increasing productivity and tax revenues and reducing spending on health care, special education, and crime. We might even close the achievement gap.

What can we do?

Mona Hanna-Attisha, the pediatrician who first alerted the government to the high lead levels in Flint’s children, has called for funding for evidence-based interventions such as mother-infant support, literacy programs, universal preschool, school health services, nutrition programs, primary medical care, and mental health care.

These programs are vital, but ordinary teachers and administrators can also help to protect children from lead’s poisonous effects. You can:

  • Ask your administration to test the school’s water. If your school or daycare center was built before 1986, find out if filters have been installed on every water fountain and faucet and if those fountains and taps are flushed every day. They should run for 30 seconds to 2 minutes. (Collect the water and give it to your plants.) Alert families to the dangers of lead and encourage them to test, filter, and flush their faucets at home.
  • Use only cold water for drinking, cooking, and preparing formula.
  • Suggest that parents have their children’s blood lead level tested, or arrange to have testing at school, as the city of Newark has just done. Testing is mandatory in some states, including New York, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, and Medicaid requires testing for children at 1 and 2 years. But children in old low-income neighborhoods should be tested later as well. Those with high lead levels may be eligible for early intervention and special education services under the “Other Health Impairment” category of IDEA.
  • Provide meals and snacks that are rich in calcium, iron, and vitamin C. Avoid fatty foods, which aid absorption.
  • Be sure that children wash their hands and faces often, and wash toys regularly, especially outdoor toys.
  • To reduce lead-filled dust, have everyone take off their shoes before entering classrooms. Regularly wet-mop floors and entrances, and wet-wipe windows, taking extra care with sills and wells. Thoroughly clean mops and sponges.
  • Don’t let children play in bare soil. Instead plant grass or cover the ground with grass seed, mulch, sod, or wood chips.

Flint did one thing that’s positive: It put the problem of lead exposure front and center. Let’s keep it that way. —Judy Sklar Rasminsky



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