Lead 101: Flint Crisis Is Latest Example Of America's Lead Problem
More than four months after Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder announced a 10-point plan to remedy the drinking water crisis in Flint, the source of the problem remains present. Like many older cities, Flint is full of lead pipes.
As lead poisoning captures the attention of presidential candidates, Gerald Markowitz reminds Here & Now‘s Peter O’Dowd that the problem is anything but new.
Despite regulatory efforts that span decades, lead persists in paint, pipes and many other places.
Interview Highlights: Gerald Markowitz
On what makes lead a useful element
“One of the good things about lead is that it’s easy to get at it. It’s easily mined. It’s not necessarily very deep. But also, lead is very malleable, you can work with lead very easily. And it’s one of the reasons it’s used so much in plumbing, because lead pipe is much easier for someone to work with than a copper pipe, for example. It’s a very stable element. All of those things make it very useful in a wide variety of products.”
On the reasons European countries got smart to the dangers of lead in the early 1900s while the U.S. lagged far behind
“Well you had much greater willingness for government to regulate the economy and to regulate business in Europe than you did in the United States, so it think that that is probably the major reason that it occurred.”
On where lead can be found today
“Lead in airplanes is still a major use of lead in gasoline. Lead in highway markers. Also, lead is used on bridges but probably the most important use of lead today is in car batteries and a wide variety of electronic devices that we carry around every day.”
In what it would take to lead-proof the U.S.
“Well, it’s a failure of will. The cost of removing lead is quite large but when we think about the cost of removing lead, we don’t think about the cost to damaged lives of children, of their inability to work in school and suffering neurological damage. The opponents of remediating this problem always talk about the cost, so it really in some ways is a false issue. We don’t have to take off the lead paint in every home in the United States but if you started with the places where children are at risk right now, the cost would be substantially less and then you could progressively prioritize which areas needed to be dealt with subsequent to that.”
Correction: An earlier version of the audio above incorrectly stated that lead is present in jet fuel. It is not. Lead is present in an aviation fuel known as avgas, which is used in piston-engine aircraft.
- Gerald Markowitz, public health historian and professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York. He’s also co-author of the book “Lead Wars: The Politics of Science and the Fate of America’s Children.”