America’s Lead Crisis: How Funders Can Help

pipesThe recent crisis in Flint’s water supply has brought national attention to lead poisoning and its harmful effects, especially among children. Sadly, however, lead poisoning is not just a problem in Flint but in many communities across the nation. Here’s what donors should know.

  • Lead exposure, however brief, can have profound detrimental effects, especially in children. In fact, there is no such thing as a “safe” blood lead level. In a 1970 landmark study, lead exposure was found to cause brain damage to children at levels too low to cause clinically evident symptoms. Since then, lead poisoning has been linked to ADHD, learning disability, intellectual disability, conduct disorders & behavioral deficits, impairments in vision & hearing, and loss of IQ.
  • The most common and dangerous source of lead exposure is lead-based paint.[1] Houses built before 1978 (when lead-based paint was banned) likely contain lead-based paint. According to the CDC, 24 million homes in the US have lead-contaminated dust and deteriorated lead-based paint on walls, windows and doors. Options to address lead paint include encapsulation with a watertight coating, enclosure with new drywall, replacing contaminated surfaces or features, or removal by an EPA-certified contractor, all of which can cost thousands of dollars.
  • Lead exposure is a widespread problem in the U.S. The CDC classifies elevated blood lead levels as those greater than 5 µg/dL, and estimates that 535,000 children in the U.S. ages 1 to 5 have levels high enough to damage their health. Unfortunately Flint is not alone. For example, recent data from cities such as Allentown, PA and Milwaukee, WI show that 1% and 8.6% of children tested have elevated blood levels, respectively. However, states are not required to submit lead surveillance data to the CDC, and not all states mandate testing lead levels in children.[2] Therefore, the full scope of the problem nationwide is difficult to gage. For more on how to prevent lead exposure in your own home & community, see the CDC’s website for more information.

The good news is, there are ways for funders to help. In our recent funder brief, we outlined three strategies for funders who wish to help prevent and reduce childhood exposure to harmful chemicals, including lead:

  • Prevent and reduce exposure today to known harmful chemicals in the built, consumer, and natural environments. Read more here.
  • Advocate for improved policy and practice to prevent and reduce exposure to, and use of, harmful chemicals. Read more here.
  • Support research and innovation to further assess chemicals whose effects have not yet been fully tested. Read more here.

And for funders interested in Flint specifically, here are two ways to help:

  • Support immediate relief efforts. It can be tempting to buy & deliver water bottles, but local storage of donated items can be difficult. It’s better to give money to organizations that can bulk-purchase water according to need and available space, such as the Catholic Charities of Genesee County’s Flint Water Recovery Efforts and United Way of Genesee County’s Flint Water Fund.
  • Consider longer-term support. After many man-made and environmental disasters, funds with ties to the local community can be a great way to provide needed support. Recently, the Flint Child Health & Development Fund was created to offer long-term support for health & mental development of the affected children and families, and may be worth exploring for interested donors.

For more on how to protect children from harmful environmental exposures, see our funder brief, Ensure a Healthy Start. And be sure to check out our blog series on Environmental Health & Early Childhood, including a Q&A with Dr. Philip Landrigan, pediatrician, epidemiologist, and leader in the field of children’s environmental health.