Lead poisoning in the United States disproportionately affects Black communities due to historical, institutionalized, and environmental racism. Sources of lead exposure may include contaminated drinking water and soil and old paint dust.

Throughout history, Black communities have faced undue exposure to lead and other environmental toxins due to institutional U.S. policies.

Children are especially vulnerable to lead poisoning, which can permanently affect their development and behavior. Lead poisoning in the United States predominantly affects historically marginalized and low wealth populations, especially Black communities.

This article looks at the history of lead poisoning in Black communities and whether lead poisoning remains a problem. It also reviews which states have the highest incidences of lead poisoning and the potential complications of lead exposure.

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U.S. federal policies have historically segregated communities according to race and ethnicity. The institutional racism inherent in racial segregation led to negative health outcomes for marginalized groups, especially Black communities.

In 1934, following the Great Depression and the resulting housing crisis, the government created the Federal Housing Administration (FHA).

The FHA became the main federal agency for handling mortgage insurance. The organization aimed to free up funds for home loans and reinvigorate the housing market.

The FHA also produced a document called the Underwriting Manual, which separated neighborhoods by occupation and income, as well as race and ethnicity.

The manual divided neighborhoods according to a rating system, with predominantly Black neighborhoods receiving the lowest rating.

The FHA institutionalized racist practices, denying mortgages based on race and ethnicity. This isolated Black communities, denied them financial assistance, and hastened the decline of inner city areas.

The racist segregation that government agencies institutionalized also promoted environmental racism.

Environmental racism

Predominantly Black neighborhoods have historically and consistently had higher exposure to harmful environmental factors overall, such as air pollution and harmful water facilities.

The segregation of Black communities allowed policymakers and planners to avoid endangering predominantly white neighborhoods while exposing already marginalized communities to environmental hazards.

For example, the historical exclusion of Black communities in North Carolina meant that these communities did not have access to municipal public health services such as public water services.

This led to Black communities using private wells contaminated with lead for drinking water, which caused significantly elevated blood lead levels.

Businesses and organizations have also historically used Black neighborhoods as locations to dump harmful wastes and to build permanent structures with harmful emissions.

In 1959, the Bruco Battery Company dumped 500 used battery casings in a Chicago neighborhood, mostly populated by Black families.

When the residents living in this low income neighborhood attempted to use the casings as an alternative fuel source to wood and coal, the burning casings released a toxic cloud of lead sulfate, poisoning the families.

Lead poisoning remains a problem in the United States and still disproportionately affects Black communities.

In a 2020 article, researchers report that Black children have the highest blood lead levels in the United States compared with other racial groups.

The authors state this is largely due to greater exposure to lead through water, air, soil, and industrial emissions in the living environment. Black children are also more likely to live in homes that contain old, lead-based paint, which presents a significant risk of lead poisoning.

Federal, state, and local governments have continued to enact policies that reinforce institutional racism in recent years. An example of this was and is the Flint, Michigan, water crisis that was initiated in 2014.

The City of Flint, Michigan, changed its municipal water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River. The process led to corrosion in the water distribution pipes, causing lead and other contaminants to pollute the drinking water.

In 2016, the city reconnected to the original water source, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests damage was already done.

In the predominantly Black community of Flint, many households reported symptoms related to the contamination, including behavioral, mental, and physical health issues.

CDC experts do not consider any blood lead level safe in children.

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), even children with blood lead levels below 5 micrograms per deciliter (µg/dL) may experience potentially serious health effects. The NIH reports that these adverse health events can include behavioral disorders and diminished IQ scores.

According to the CDC, in 2018, the national average of children in the United States with blood lead levels higher than 5µg/dL was 2.6%.

States with higher percentages than the national average included:

  • Pennsylvania: 6.6%
  • Wisconsin: 6.6%
  • Vermont: 5.1%
  • New York: 4.7%
  • Kansas: 4.7%
  • Iowa: 4.5%
  • Ohio: 4.4%
  • Louisiana: 4.2%
  • Indiana: 4.0%
  • Missouri: 3.9%
  • New Hampshire: 3.7%
  • Connecticut: 3.6%

Exposure to lead

According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), manufacturers used lead in a variety of products, such as paint, ceramics, gasoline, and cosmetics, until the government began to phase it out from 1973 onward.

Researchers estimate that around half of the U.S. population experienced exposure to potentially dangerous levels of lead in their childhood, particularly from the 1950s to 1980s.

Some people face exposure to lead in their working environment. Occupations that may expose someone to lead include mining, building renovation, construction, ceramics, shooting ranges, and smelting.

The NIEHS highlights the sources of lead exposure today:

  • Contaminated drinking water: Plumbing or distribution lines that leach lead may cause lead poisoning.
  • Old lead paint dust: Although the government banned the use of lead paint, old homes and buildings still contain it. Paint that chips off and turns to dust may cause lead poisoning.
  • Contaminated soil: Old lead paint dust, lead from gasoline, and lead fumes can contaminate soil.

A person may breathe lead in as dust or fumes or consume it in water or food. Young children are at greater risk of lead poisoning, as they may put lead-contaminated objects in their mouth.

Lead exposure can have a range of potential effects on children and adults.

The effects of lead on children

Lead may permanent affect children’s development and behavior. Exposure to lead may cause:

  • delays to puberty
  • behavioral and attention issues
  • hearing loss
  • stunted prenatal growth or height
  • a decrease in cognitive performance
  • decline in IQ and academic achievement

The effects of lead on adults

Adult exposure to lead may cause:

Some people with lead poisoning may appear asymptomatic (no symptoms). When people are symptomatic, they may experience varying symptoms and complications that can include:

It’s important that anyone who suspects they or someone around them is displaying symptoms due to lead exposure contact a healthcare professional.

Lead poisoning disproportionally affects Black communities in the United States. This is due to institutional and environmental racism — both historically and presently.

Due to exposure to unsafe environment conditions enacted through racist practices, Black communities still have higher blood lead levels than people of other races in the United States.

There is no safe level of lead in the blood, and higher levels can lead to potentially severe and sometimes permanent health issues.

If you or someone you know suspects lead exposure, it’s important that you talk with a healthcare professional as soon as possible for an evaluation and to start treatment if you receive a confirmed diagnosis.