Chicago’s lead epidemic

One of the American landscape’s predominant features is the connection between de facto racial segregation and numerous social adversities faced by the minorities. For decades we have seen persistent a link between spacial isolation and concentrated poverty in the US. For instance, across the country, around 33% of Black children who were born between years 1985 – 2000 have grown up in high-poverty areas in contrast with just 1% of White children (Sharkey, 2013). The racial stratification of America’s urban settlements is not merely about the income differences within groups, minority neighbourhoods also ‘disproportionately experience higher unemployment rates, single-parent families, teenage childbearing, violence, incarceration, and high school dropout’ (Sampson, 2016: 216). An area of study given less academic attention but as significant is the neighbourhood division by race in the fundamentals of well-being and physical health. As in the case of social deprivation, impaired health indicators, such as heart disease, cancer, and infant mortality, tend to be the highest in poor, racially-divided neighbourhoods. In my blog, I will explore ‘the racial ecology of lead exposure as a form of environmental inequity’ (ibid: 215).

Where does the problem come from?

From my previous blog, we have learned that Chicago had a long history of lead poisoning from the old water pipes installed everywhere in the city. Even though the city’s mayor Lightfoot is working hard to resolve the issue by proposing a plan to replace all the lead pipes in the city and installing water filters, as recent as in 2016, a team from ABC 7 tested a number of drinking fountains in different parts of the city, and some results came back with water testing high in lead. Lead can also be found in some containers, sweets, toys and soil. Also, in Chicago, some of the older residential buildings have lead paint, so people staying or living there are very likely to be exposed to it.

How exactly does lead affect the human body? And who is affected by it the most?

Lead is a naturally occurring toxic metal that could be found in the Earth’s crust. It has been considered one of the most dangerous environmental toxicants in the Western hemisphere for a long time (Vorvolakos, 2016). However, this hasn’t stopped its wide utilization across the globe. Not only has its use resulted in environmental pollution but also human exposure to it has caused a lot of health complications in the societies worldwide.

A photo of a family in East Chicago near a sign preventing children from playing in the dirt in the area with topsoil containing up to 30 times more lead than safety levels (source: https://www.workers.org/2016/09/27125/)

Because of the specific exposure pathways, such as pica, children are the ones most vulnerable to the neurotoxin. The internationally acceptable level of lead in the blood for children varied through the years, starting with 60 μg/ dL in the 1960s and by 1991 lowering down to 10 μg/ dL (ibid). However, it’s important to note that the effects of lead vary from child to child, so no amount should be considered safe. Even low to moderate levels can cause behavioural and cognitive problems in children (ibid). The effects are often long-term, affecting IQ, the pace of development, learning disability etc.

According to research, Black children have a higher risk of lead exposure compared to that of White or Hispanic children. Figure 1 shows a map from 1995, where a dramatic variability in children’s predominance rates of high blood lead levels (more or equal to 6 μg/dL) was seen across Chicago’s neighbourhoods. Some of the “hot spots” of the elevated rates were found in the Southside and Westside Chicago in 1995 and onwards that ‘were associated with lower median household incomes, older housing stock, and higher percentages of Black, Hispanic, and Asian residents’ (Sampson, 2016: 264).

Figure 1. The map showing the percentage of children tested who had at least 6 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood, by Chicago census tract (1995)
Figure 2. The map showing the percentage of children tested who had at least 6 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood, by Chicago census tract (2010)

Concluding thoughts

Throughout this blog, we have looked at lead poisoning as a contributing factor to racial inequality in Chicago. This, in part, is because of such socioeconomic factors as lack of education and low incomes in the minority communities and aspects related to housing, such as unit age, vacancy, and dilapidation. Even when these factors are under control, prevalence rates of elevated BLL (blood lead levels) in the area of ​​residence are still closely associated with racial and ethnic segregation. Nevertheless, to end my blog on a good note, the decline of the BLL throughout Chicago has been dramatic over recent years, especially in areas with initial elevated prevalence rates, as seen in Figure 2. This resulted from the great community and government efforts, such as the removal of the old lead pipes, rigorous testing and reduction of the use of lead paints in residential housing and public areas where children spend a lot of time in, improving their overall health.


References

Sampson, R. J., and Winter, A. S. (2016) ‘The racial ecology of lead poisoning: Toxic inequality in Chicago neighborhoods, 1995-2013’, Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race13(2), 261-283.

Sharkey, Patrick T. (2013) ‘Stuck in Place: Urban Neighborhoods and the End of Progress toward Racial Equality’, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Vorvolakos, T., Arseniou, S. and Samakouri, M. (2016) ‘There is no safe threshold for lead exposure: Alpha literature review’, Psychiatriki27(3), 204-214.

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