Lead Poisoning

Bringing social justice to chemistry

By Karen Zaccor

Illustrator: Kelly Hayes

Chicago Light Brigade demonstrators protesting lead contamination outside Gale Elementary, June 2014.
Photo by Kelly Hayes

I’ve been reading Rethinking Schools for years, wondering “How do these teachers get such great engagement, such profound thinking from their students?” Like many science teachers, I struggle to incorporate social justice topics in my science classes, especially in chemistry. I can’t send students off to college unfamiliar with basics like the periodic table, but none of them comes to class excited about metals vs nonmetals or the significance of valence electrons.

And then the catastrophe of lead-contaminated water in Flint, Michigan, hit the media. The stories exposed how in early 2014 Flint’s governor-appointed city manager, in a cost-saving move, decided that the primarily African American city, already reeling from high poverty and unemployment rates, would get its water from the highly corrosive Flint River rather than continuing to use Lake Huron. The health problems this created were compounded by the decision to save an additional $100 a day by not adding anti-corrosive agents. City, state, and national officials brushed off residents’ complaints for months while the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality falsified data to minimize the lead problem. By the time a newly elected mayor declared a state of emergency, the percent of children under 6 with elevated blood lead levels (BLLs) had doubled; in the most affected neighborhoods, almost 16 percent of young children had been poisoned. The devastating effects of these decisions and the racism behind them were laid bare for all to see.

Because the Flint crisis is shining a light on lead poisoning nationally, it seemed a perfect topic for my chemistry class. Lead poisoning is also a problem in Chicago, where I teach. So I thought it would resonate with my students, many of whom were already interested in social justice issues.

My main objective for the unit was to get my students to see how a science-based issue in their own city was affecting them personally. I wanted them to realize that learning about it could empower them to take action.

Lead in Water, Lead in Paint

We kicked off the second semester and the new unit with a brainstorm about what students had heard about Flint. The crisis was news to many students, but a few had heard about the lead in the water. Some reflected, as Justin did, that “Flint happened because they don’t care about Black people.”

“Flint is a scandal that’s making news right now,” I said, “but we also have a lead poisoning scandal right here in Chicago.” I passed out a recent article by Chicago Tribune reporter Michael Hawthorne. I wanted to set a context for how my students viewed Chicago policies and actions regarding lead. I agreed with students like Justin who believed that the cost-saving measures taken in Flint occurred out of a profound lack of concern for the health and well-being of the mostly African American, mostly poor, population. I wanted my students to ponder whether a similar lack of concern for its poor residents of color lies beneath Chicago’s failure to invest in solutions to this most solvable of public health problems.

“Why do I call lead poisoning in Chicago a scandal? As you read and record the ideas that are important to you and your reaction to them, I want you to keep that question in mind. Think about who this is happening to and why.” Students began to read quietly, creating a dialogue journal with important information recorded on the left side and their reactions in the form of insights, questions, and connections on the right.

Hawthorne highlights a family living in public housing. All nine children in the family were eventually found to have lead poisoning. Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) practice was to conduct only a visual inspection (rather than testing surfaces for lead) and they proclaimed the home safe before the family moved in. When the mother sought to move to lead-free housing, she was threatened with loss of her Section 8 (federally subsidized housing) voucher. CHA was also operating under HUD guidelines that were 25 years out of date, using a blood lead standard of 20 μg/dL of lead (200 parts per billion) vs. the current CDC standard of 5 μg/dL (50 ppb).

This article and many others we read focused on the problem of lead-based paint. The Flint crisis has exposed the problem of lead in the water due to widespread use of lead pipes. Although most communities use anti-corrosives, they are not foolproof, and stories about lead in water are now appearing all over the country. But experts say that, except in the case of babies drinking formula made with lead-contaminated water, water is the source of about 20 percent of the lead in children’s blood. And that means identifying and remediating the source of the other 80 percent. In cities like Chicago with many buildings built before 1978, the main source of lead poisoning is most likely the paint in children’s homes.

Poisoning rates can be quite high. In Chicago, the percent of children with elevated BLLs is double the national average. In the poorest neighborhoods, more than 20 percent of the children tested have elevated BLLs.

“Who is in charge of the CHA program? Because they are the real problem,” Afia wrote in her reading log, responding to reporting that CHA regulations allow landlords to request indefinite extensions to fix lead paint hazards as they continue to collect taxpayer-financed rent checks. Janesha was angry that the family’s rent subsidy was threatened when the mother tried to protect her children from lead. “Why did they treat her like she was nothing when she told them about the lead?”

“They should take action no matter how much lead is found in the blood,” observed Krysstal. Current science acknowledges that no level of lead can be considered safe. Perhaps most poignant was Ciera’s comment: “I used to live in a house with lead paint when I was in 5th grade.” Several other students with younger siblings expressed concerns about the potential for lead in their apartments.

The Science of Lead Poisoning

To understand how lead harms children, we focused in on the biochemistry of lead poisoning. Lead is a poison when ingested in any quantity. As an ion, it mimics calcium and iron in the body. It can replace iron in hemoglobin in someone with an iron-poor diet, increasing the likelihood of anemia. Lead can penetrate the blood-brain barrier and replace calcium in key pathways that are part of the development of neural networks, memory function, and the control of executive function. This is of particular concern in children under 6, whose brains are still developing; brain damage caused is permanent. The students worked in groups to create posters or body models showing the different ways lead can affect a child’s growth and development.

We read studies showing that several points of IQ can be lost, even at low levels of lead exposure. An analysis of standardized test scores of Chicago 3rd graders showed a significant increase in failure rates in math and reading for children with low BLLs. The study attributed as much as 25 percent of test failures to lead poisoning. My students have grown up in a school system where standardized test results can result in students being held back a grade. Monique connected the dots for us: “Even a small amount of lead might cause a student to fail the test. They fall behind and don’t graduate high school. Then employment becomes difficult.”

Indeed, a lifetime of challenges awaits the child with lead poisoning. Since the damage that occurs can be subtle, many families never realize that their children have been poisoned and are losing their full potential.

The Geography of Lead Poisoning

Many students felt a strong connection to this issue, but I wanted to deepen the impact. So I created a “Lead Where We Live” assignment based on an interactive website put up by the Chicago Tribune. I found the census tracts with the highest levels of lead poisoning in the city and constructed the assignment to highlight that information, as well as leaving space for students to record citywide averages and averages for their home census tract. The website tracks changes in the incidence of lead poisoning in Chicago between 1995 and 2013. One thing I wanted students to understand was that in the early 1990s, lead poisoning was equally likely to affect any community in the city from the richest to the poorest. By 2013, it was far more likely to affect the poorest communities.

“I want you to explore this site,” I told my students. “Look for patterns. How does the pattern of lead poisoning change for the city as a whole from 1995 to 2013? Where is there a drop in the number of cases? Is it the same everywhere? What could explain differences? How does the pattern for your own census tract compare with the pattern for the whole city?”

After gathering data, the students graphed what they found and then answered some analysis questions. I was working to balance reading with other activities that offered a change of pace and developed students’ skills at summarizing information or representing data. I also wanted to press them to think about how data can be used—or misused. On one hand, the huge decline in lead poisoning from the mid-1990s is a wonderful thing. On the other hand, that decline can obscure the fact that, in some communities, more than one child in five has a high BLL; that adds up to about 10,000 children per year in the city. Since only about half of the children between 6 months and 6 years old were tested in 2013, the actual number could be much higher.

My students were angry that more is not being done in communities hit hardest by lead poisoning. In their reflections on the data, they were adamant that every child’s future should be considered important. They couldn’t believe that so few people knew enough about the possible dangers of lead. Over and over, they reported that neither they nor their parents remember them being tested for lead as young children—and their younger siblings are not being tested either.

Each article and activity reinforced the students’ realization that lead poisoning is an entirely preventable problem. “They invest in the wrong things,” said Keshanna angrily. She had just read that Chicago spends more each year on software licensing than it does to eliminate lead poisoning. “The government doesn’t care to help because [we’re] lower class and African American,” she said.

Over and over, my students linked the lack of funding to a lack of concern for their communities. In a city that closed 50 schools “to save money” but somehow has money for bike paths and a new sports stadium, in a city wracked by police killings of youth of color, it’s hard to reach any other conclusion.

What Can Families Do?

Most people’s initial response to a health problem is to resort to medicine, but there is no pill or potion to cure lead poisoning. At very high BLLs, chelation therapy, in which a chemical agent binds to lead to remove it from the blood, is often used. But it comes with its own risks and side effects and does not resolve brain damage that has already occurred. The best protection is to prevent exposure to lead in the first place, but the huge drop in funding for lead poisoning, from the national level to the city, means that Chicago’s lead inspection program is reactive rather than proactive. Inspection comes after a child has been poisoned and the damage is already done.

“Back in the early 1990s, the BLL that would trigger an inspection was 20µg/dL,” I explained. “Now the standard is 5—but we learned that HUD and CHA are still using a standard of 20. The city has only 11 inspectors. Do they come quickly when a child is found poisoned or is there a backlog? How long does the landlord get to fix the problem? We don’t know the answers to these questions, but what we’ve read suggests months, even years, can pass.

“We know that our families are not being informed about lead poisoning and its dangers. We know lead is everywhere, thanks to years of lead-based paint and leaded gasoline. The city has to take responsibility and get rid of every bit of lead paint that could hurt a child.

“But, in the meantime, is there anything families can do themselves?”

We set out to develop a lead poisoning prevention protocol for families. There are certain cleanup methods that make it less likely that children will ingest lead even if it is present in their building. In addition, there are nutrients parents should make sure their children are eating: iron and calcium—essential minerals that compete with lead for absorption—and vitamin C, which makes it easier to digest those minerals. We did a simulation in the lab to demonstrate how consuming more calcium and iron reduces how much lead the body takes up.

Then we went to the library. Working in small groups, students researched foods that are lead-healthy. Other students came up with a list of cleanup guidelines:

  • Wipe down windowsills and doorframes with a damp rag daily to minimize dust from open windows and doors.
  • Damp mop floors instead of vacuuming, which can spread lead dust.
  • Wash toys frequently.
  • Shoes that can track in dirt from lead-contaminated soil should be left outside.
  • If a family member works at a job involving lead-based products, leave their work clothes outside the house.
  • Wash children’s hands frequently and definitely before eating.

What Should We Fight For?

These were things families could do, but what about system-wide solutions? My students agreed that inspecting properties before families move in was the single best strategy. It fit perfectly into our discussion when Sheila Sutton from the Metropolitan Tenants Organization (MTO) came to speak to the class. She told us that MTO was pushing an ordinance called Chicago Healthy Homes Inspection Program that would require proactive inspection for lead and other common issues prevalent in low-income housing. She invited us to consider ways their work might fit into whatever we decided to do.

Indeed, the time had come to decide what we were going to do for a culminating project. I did not want to lose out on an ideal opportunity for activism. At the same time, I was wary of confusing my own desire for action with my students’ needs and interests. So I started a brainstorming session based on these questions:

  • What do you feel most interested in/motivated to work on?
  • What did we learn that is worth sharing?
  • What do you think it is possible for us to have an impact on?

I recorded their ideas. Several students had ideas for information that should go out to the community:

“We could share information on the effects of lead.”

“What about how to protect your children?”

Others focused on system-wide changes we should push the city to make. Eventually we agreed on the most important information for a community awareness campaign and five demands to make of city officials:

  1. Do city-wide outreach about the dangers of lead poisoning and how to prevent it, especially to families in Section 8 and other low-cost housing.
  2. Make sure all health providers know and follow the recommended schedule for testing infants and children for lead poisoning.
  3. Adopt and fund the Chicago Healthy Homes Inspection Program ordinance. Ensure that HUD and CHA adequately inspect their buildings, using current CDC standards for lead.
  4. Inspect elementary schools and daycare centers for lead-based paint and adequately fund lead abatement.
  5. Make sure the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) food program includes the daily requirement of nutrients that protect against lead poisoning.

I went home excited about the great ideas the students had generated. I used their suggestions to design a flexible final assignment. The next day, I let students choose the format for the project they would create. They chose to work on an informational brochure, a power-point presentation, a radio public service announcement (PSA), a TV PSA, and a press packet.

Ideally, students would have gotten a few class periods of work time and then a day to present. They would have had clear guidelines for their work and I would have had time to meet with each group to clarify any confusion. But, as all too often happens, my plans were interrupted by field trips, professional development, and standardized testing. When the time came to present, I realized I should have been more alert to the students who were struggling with what their product should look like and how they could get there.

In the end, we had a good brochure, an excellent TV PSA, and some interesting new nuggets of information. One example came from research into our demand to inspect Chicago schools for lead. “CPS’s own documents say we should assume any school built before 1978 has lead-based paint,” wrote Ayiana. She read articles about a CPS school in which lead paint was found in 2009 but not cleaned up until 2014. “If this school had lead this recently,” she argued, “other CPS schools must have lead, too.”

In fact, Chicago is now testing for lead in the water at all CPS schools. CPS head Forrest Claypool has vowed to do “whatever it takes” to eliminate the lead in the water, but no one has mentioned the need to inspect schools for lead paint nor vowed to clean that up, although it may be an even more serious problem.

Looking to the Future

Eventually, two groups of students were able to share our findings with real audiences. The power-point group presented at our school’s annual Social Justice Expo and got lots of positive feedback. Another group of students presented our demands and the evidence behind them to our local alderman, who was very receptive.

However, once the unit was over it was a challenge to find the time or student motivation to take our demands to another level. We haven’t been able to get an audience with other aldermen and attempts to reach a wider audience fizzled as students headed toward the end of the school year.

Looking back, I see a lot of things I would do differently in the future. In particular, I would put the students more in charge of seeking information, rather than doing so much of the work myself. Instead of relying so heavily on articles, I would also ask students to survey classmates, teachers, and families; interview people whose families were affected by lead poisoning; and reach out to local experts. I would also structure the project so students had an opportunity to report out initial findings at an earlier stage. I have observed in the past that, once students realize that others see the information they have to offer as valuable, they become more interested in the work. I think that would have created a stronger commitment to pursue some kind of action.

I’m encouraged, though, as I read students’ final reflections and see how many students discussed the lead issues we were studying with others:

I learned something I never heard of before and I was able to make others aware of it.

I spoke to my neighbor and explained lead, how we are exposed, and how we can change it.

I had my sister take my nephews to get tested for lead poisoning.

In the end, the biggest takeaway may be that the students realized that chemistry is important in their everyday lives and can inform struggles for justice in their communities.