Lead poisoning in Pennsylvania

Photo: “Playground set” by Greg Goebel via Flickr

What happens when two of the largest counties in Pennsylvania poison their youth? When one looks at statistics and anecdotes that can be found year after year, the answer seems to be “not much.”

The CNN docuseries “United Shades of America” recently covered the issue. Host W. Kamau Bell visited areas in Chester and Philadelphia that harbor dangerous amounts of lead in their infrastructure.

High concentrations of the poisonous metal can be found in the old and chipped paint that lines the walls of Philadelphia and Chester homes. Combine this with a child’s desire to put everything in their mouth, and a regional issue is created. Lead poisoning, defined as a blood-lead level over 10 ug/dL, affects at least 2,700 youth every year in the city of brotherly love.

Bell compares the issue to asbestos.

“If it’s asbestos, the consequences could be shortness of breath, lung disease and/or cancer. If it’s chemicals related to air pollution, you can get a variety of cancers, respiratory issues, hormonal defects or literally hundreds of other conditions,” Bell said.

Peeling and chipped paint are not the only culprit. Philadelphia and Chester lead smelters, abandoned and working alike, create lead-contaminated dust that settles in neighboring buildings. Lead from these factories contaminates the surrounding outdoors as well. Grassy areas, dirt and playground wood chips become harborers of this toxic dust, activated once the area is unsettled by moving feet and construction.

Families are forced to cope with these conditions. Local Philadelphia news reported the closure of a playground after it was tested for unsafe lead levels. Dr. Kevin Osterhoudt, the director of the Poison Control Center at a children’s hospital in Philadelphia, gave insight into how families account for toxic surroundings like the playground.

“It’s important to let children play and to use playgrounds . . . but we can do things like when they come home with dirty shoes, leave shoes at the front steps, when they come into the house and before they have a cookie or a snack or eat dinner, have them wash their hands,” Dr. Ousterhoudt said.

Children affected by lead poisoning suffer from cognitive stunts, shorter attention spans, slower to understand concepts and an inability to control impulses are a few symptoms. In Philadelphia, where some inner-city schools subjected to lead contamination also contain asbestos, more children are affected.

Bell met with the family of 10-year-old Jalen, a Philadelphia resident affected by lead poisoning. Jalen surpasses the 10 ug/dL lead limit with a staggering 29 ug/dL. His family now fears for his future in the world and the workforce. They are not the only family who faces an unpredictable future due to an environment of poison.

For the grown population, lead contamination still hinders lives. As Bell stated, there are higher rates of asthma, cancer and seizures in the region. The average lifespan of a Chester resident is 69 years old, almost 10 years below the national average.

What is the solution? Well, if the United States’ attitude about investing in communities is any hint, the answer is obvious: money. These factories cannot be torn down with all due haste. In order to prevent the unsettling and dispersing of dust, longer hours and meticulous machinery is required. Mass paint removal is neither cheap nor convenient, but would be the only way to ensure removal from all homes.

Bell believes the issue will get worse before it gets better.

“. . .We need people who live in privilege to know that one day that lead cloud or that dirty water or any number of man-made crises, are coming to their house, too,” Bell said.

At the end of the day, it comes down to whether or not this country is willing to invest in it’s children. Paint chips and dust rob youth of their future, their livelihood and their independence.

Caroline Helms is a first-year English major.

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