How Lead Poisoned People of Color in East Chicago and Beyond

Todd McInturf/Detroit News via AP)/Detroit News via AP

In December 2015, the mayor of Flint, Michigan declared a state of emergency because of lead in the water supply. Lead in the soil had been poisoning residents in East Chicago for decades. Only in July 2016 did the city alert residents to the lead contamination, and that warning came in a letter that required eleven hundred people to immediately move from the area.

For The Baffler, Rebecca Burns details the story of East Chicago’s lead crisis and how environmental racism works. The Environmental Protection Agency is still trying to figure out which companies polluted this location with their old lead smelter and factories, and to determine the scale of the damage. The EPA might never know, and this is only one of numerous sites it’s investigating. Unfortunately, the disaster in East Chicago is one we will see repeated in other communities.

By the 1920s, the medical community pinpointed widespread lead exposure as a major public health problem, but an offensive by lead and paint trade groups thwarted regulatory efforts for another fifty years. In their 2013 book Lead Wars, historians Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner document how the Lead Industries Association diverted concerns with talk of ills linked to the culture of poverty.

Internal communications show, for example, the lead association’s smug response to a 1956 Parade article about lead hazards in the home, provocatively headlined, “Don’t Let YOUR Child Get Lead Poisoning.” The lead association’s director of health and safety acknowledged that “aside from the kids that are poisoned . . . it’s a serious problem from the viewpoint of adverse publicity.” Dealing with the problem of children ingesting lead-saturated toys and paint, he concluded, would require “educat[ing] the parents. But most of the cases are in Negro and Puerto Rican families, and how does one tackle that job?”

Industry spin-doctors were largely successful in framing lead poisoning as an intractable problem without an obvious solution. As a result, while awareness of lead hazards continued to grow during the 1950s, the political will to address them did not. Rather than reducing lead exposure, federal and local policies further concentrated it among urban communities of color, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy about lead poisoning as a disease of poverty.

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