California has its own lead crisis in poor communities

The unfolding lead crisis in Flint, Mich., was born of unique circumstances. Yet other communities in the Rust Belt – and some right here in California – also face the same kinds of conditions.

What do they have in common? They are low-income, and they are predominantly brown and black.

Consider the neighborhoods near the old Exide Technologies battery recycling plant in southeast Los Angeles. Residents there are being offered free lead testing following the revelation that through decades of emitting lead, arsenic and other dangerous pollutants into the air and soil, the plant had contaminated as many as 10,000 homes in the area, where nearly 70 percent of residents are Latino.

Gov. Jerry Brown’s request this month for $177 million to test and clean homes around the Exide facility in the next year is a good start, but additional funding is needed for lead poisoning prevention programs across the state. Since lead paint was banned in 1978, some believe this is largely an issue of the past, but California still has 8.6 million homes with lead-based paint.

No amount of lead in the body is known to be safe. Yet long after the discovery of its irreversible brain damage, a disproportionate number of communities of color continue to be exposed – and the costs are tremendous.

Besides medical treatment, special education and removing lead, research shows that each IQ point a child loses due to lead exposure corresponds with a 2.4 percent reduction in lifetime earnings. According to calculations from our California Environmental Health Tracking Program, that means lead exposures cost families $11 billion over the lifetime of children born in just a single year in California.

Our most vulnerable communities are exposed to a number of other environmental hazards that are cutting their lives short.

Across the country, African Americans die from cancers at a higher rate than any other ethnic group. They are 60 percent more likely than whites to be diabetic and twice as likely to die from asthma.

In Oakland, where I live and work, a baby born in the hills – a majority-white area that has never experienced persistent poverty – is expected to live as much as 10 years longer than a baby born in the flatlands, historically low-income areas surrounded by highways and a major port, with predominantly black and Latino populations.

Residents of the San Joaquin Valley, home to three of the nation’s most polluted cities, spend roughly $1,600 per person each year in health care costs related to air pollution, more than anywhere else in the state. This pollution, due primarily to vehicle tailpipe emissions, can increase the risk of heart disease, lung cancer and asthma attacks.

Factories, freight infrastructure and their associated pollution don’t wind up in certain communities by accident. They are based on land use and planning decisions. State and regional agencies must ensure that the health of affected communities is protected when making these decisions.

We need data collection at the neighborhood level – not readily available in California – to identify areas at highest risk for things like lead exposure and asthma, and to target prevention and remediation efforts. We must invest in healthy housing programs. We need regulations that further reduce the burning of fossil fuels.

Lead is just one of the poisons in our vulnerable communities. We must prioritize cleaning them all up at the source.

Mary A. Pittman is president and CEO of the Public Health Institute, based in Oakland. She can be contacted at mpittman@phi.org.