A few months back, a federal judge approved a partial settlement of $626 million to be paid to residents of Flint, Michigan, who were impacted by exposure to lead in their drinking water.
The problem began when the city decided to cut costs on its water by switching from the properly treated but more expensive Detroit water (taken from Lake Huron) to the cheaper but inadequately treated water from the Flint River, while their own pipeline to Lake Huron was being built.
Almost immediately, the town’s residents complained that the water looked and smelled bad, and hundreds of people reported getting sick. Studies confirmed that lead contamination was present in their water supply.
What makes it so disturbing is that, unlike most toxins and pathogens in the bloodstream which are effectively blocked from entering the brain by the blood-brain barrier, lead passes readily through the barrier into the brain where it can wreak havoc in all sorts of ways.
Risks include long-term damage to brain and nervous system functions, slowed growth and development, behavioral and learning problems, hearing and speech problems, anemia, heart disease, decreased kidney function, reproductive issues and more.
Drinking contaminated water is just one of the ways that lead gets into the bloodstream; it can also get inhaled or ingested, which is why a team of researchers at Duke University turned their attention to the air we breathe, or more specifically, the air we used to breathe.
From 1922 to 1996, in an effort to minimize “engine knock,” lead was added to the gasoline that fueled our automobiles, and released into the air through exhaust fumes. Keep in mind that we’ve known — for centuries if not millennia — about the health hazards of lead poisoning but, throughout the bulk of the 20th century, greed and the desire to drive the economy were apparently stronger than the concern over health and well-being.
Public data shows that half of us who were alive during those years, especially people who grew up in the ’60s and ’70s, had clinically alarming levels of lead in our blood when we were kids.
Since we know what the effects of lead positioning are, the researchers were able to estimate that breathing leaded gas robbed Americans aged 40 and over (collectively) of 824 million IQ points (an average of about five points per affected person), and has put us at risk for other long-term health impairments such as mental illness and cardiovascular disease.
When lead was finally removed from the gas, lead levels in children’s blood decreased by 80%.
Today, the two main stories in the news and the hot topics of public debate are how much we’re paying at the gas pump and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Having reached an all-time high, the price of gas is interwoven with the ways we think about and respond to the acts of war, much like it was through our various wars in the Middle East over the past 30 years.
As was the case with leaded gas; there’s no mystery as to the health hazards associated with gas and oil, yet many people still cite “the economy” as the reason for remaining loyal to the petroleum industry.
Maybe it’s those few IQ points we lost that keep us from seeing the foolishness in clinging to a paradigm that threatens personal and planetary health while making the rich richer and the poor poorer.
As I see it, the higher price of gas could be a good thing, because, maybe, finally, it will impel us to seriously consider alternatives.
I realize “economics” is not inconsequential, and if we could afford better, we would likely choose better, but we all have the capacity to start from where we are right now, and move, in small ways, toward a better way.
Judging by the laws that are being passed (in some states) regarding what can and can’t be taught in public schools, it would seem some people don’t want to know or be reminded of our bad decisions and ignoble actions, but without such knowledge how are we going to make it better?