There is a room full of soil in downtown New Orleans. The soil is parceled into large baggies inside plastic tubs arranged on metal shelves. It’s like a library, except instead of books there are bags of earth. This is the soil archive of Dr. Howard W. Mielke, whose lab belongs to the Environmental Signaling Laboratory at the Tulane University School of Medicine. Mielke established the archive at Xavier University of Louisiana in 1991, and moved it to Tulane in 2006. He has catalogued some 17,000 bags of soil. They come from as far away as Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania; La Oroya, Peru; and Oslo, Norway — and as close as the daycare centers and playgrounds of New Orleans. All are contaminated with lead.
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Tulane’s School of Medicine has mirrored glass doors. For some reason you can’t be buzzed in; accordingly, I begin my visits to the soil archive with a period of self-examination. When the doors finally open, my reflection is replaced by a 78-year-old man in a lab coat. He has gray hair and a thin gray beard; his blue eyes are watery and attentive: Howard Mielke, a Minnesotan who speaks in tones completely absent malevolence or ambient testosterone. 1 It is always Howard who comes to get me. We walk up the dramatic stairway through an open-air atrium, and down a narrow corridor to his lab. The walls of the corridor are covered with maps. Mielke is a pioneer in using soil sampling to map lead levels across cities.
Mielke has a PhD in geography and environmental science, and at Tulane is affiliated with the Department of Pharmacology. He got involved in soil sampling early in his career, in 1970, when he taught a course at UCLA titled “Man and the Earth’s Ecosystem.” The class had 300 students, all of whom, this being Los Angeles, got around by car. “I asked them how many miles they drove to class,” he tells me. “I took that information and calculated the gallons of gas they consumed and the weight of lead exhausted into the air. It was a large amount. I was quite surprised. I shouldn’t have been. Clair Patterson had already done his work, but I didn’t know it very well at the time.” 2
The soil archive of Dr. Howard W. Mielke at Tulane University has catalogued thousands of soil samples from around the world. All are contaminated with lead.
Clair Cameron Patterson was a Caltech geochemist, whose analysis of lead isotopes extracted from the Canyon Diablo meteorite (discovered in Canyon Diablo, Arizona) helped to fix the age of the earth at 4.55 billion years. In the 1960s, Patterson marshaled evidence against lead contamination in the food chain, with specific emphasis on the dangers of tetraethyl lead or TEL, the additive in gasoline that, when it was legal, allowed for higher fuel efficiency — as well as emissions of lead particulate. 3
Patterson published his study “Contaminated and Natural Lead Environments of Man” in 1965. The lead industry reacted aggressively, accusing Patterson of “rabble rousing.” 4 At the same time, Mielke was following his own track, and his next epiphany took place in 1974, when he was teaching at the University of Maryland. An article appeared claiming that the lead then being detected in Baltimore dirt came from paint, not cars. The article was published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, sponsored by the National Institute of Environmental Health. But Mielke noted that one of the authors worked for the Ethyl Corporation — a major manufacturer of TEL, and a direct antagonist in Patterson’s fight for federal regulation. So Mielke had doubts. “I asked everyone in my class to collect soil samples from their own gardens or those of neighbors or relatives,” he says. “I told them that each sample had to come marked with its address. In a couple of weeks, I had over 400, which was similar to the sample size the Ethyl Corporation had collected.”
He catalogued nineteen samples per census tract. Each sample of about 200 grams was collected by spade and put in a plastic bag; in the lab, each bagful of soil was spread on a paper towel to dry, then filtered through a United States Geological Survey #10 sieve to remove leaves, stones, and other obvious foreign matter. Then it was tested for lead, and the results recorded on a color-coded map.
The map revealed an exceptionally strong cluster pattern, with the highest contamination in the center city and the lowest in outlying areas. Granted, mid-century industrial facilities such as smelters tended to be located inside city limits, and the toxicant deposited in soils is lead monoxide, rather than straight TEL. Nevertheless, Mielke observes, “what was striking was that residences in the interior of Baltimore are predominantly unpainted brick and stone, while outer-area residences tend to be made of wood and coated with lead-based paints.” The Baltimore map thus supported Patterson’s findings about car emissions while contradicting common understandings about lead in the built environment, which is that human exposure typically occurs in houses with old, peeling paint. 5
It is certainly true that paint has long been a source of lead exposure, though the lead industry fought to deny and then obscure this fact, just as vociferously as it later sought to undermine research on pollution derived from leaded gas. In the 1920s, the National Lead Company initiated a campaign for Dutch Boy paint that explicitly targeted children and their parents, with colorful brochures demonstrating all the ways in which a nursery and its furniture and toys could be made brighter with Dutch Boy.
By 1974, the time of Mielke’s garden-soil experiment in Baltimore, public awareness regarding the dangers of lead paint had broken through such evasions. Still, what Mielke’s map showed in 1974 was that paint was not the sole cause of elevated soil-lead in Baltimore. Another major cause was the lead-monoxide dust from vehicular emissions — a superfine dust that accumulated over decades in the ground near heavily trafficked roads. In Baltimore, the meager data available on children’s blood-lead levels made it difficult to compare those levels with urban patterns of soil-lead distribution. Five years later, when Mielke moved his lab to Macalester College, he managed to obtain both soil-lead and blood-lead data through surveys funded by the Minnesota state legislature. This data showed the same dichotomy of inner city versus suburb that he identified in Baltimore. The findings were a professional triumph for Mielke, though not exactly a joyous one. A 1991 segment of the ABC News Prime Time Live features a moving interview with him in which anchor Chris Wallace asks, “How does it make you feel to drive through these neighborhoods and see these children playing in what amounts to hazardous waste sites? And nothing being done about it?”
The camera cuts to Howard, who is wearing the same type of white lab coat I recognize from visits to the soil archive. “It’s a tragedy,” he says, and seems on the verge of tears. “I’d rather be Professor Mielke and stay one step away from it. It’s very hard to take.” 6 The next year, he founded Lead Lab, Inc., a nonprofit that works with communities to solve the problems of lead contamination.
The practice of using maps to chart a disease, and in so doing find clues to its cause, dates at least to the 19th century “ghost map” compiled by Dr. John Snow and Reverend Henry Whitehead, which tracked the London cholera pandemic. 7 But the word “disease” mischaracterizes the problem of environmental lead toxicity. You don’t get lead poisoning because human waste has adulterated your water supply, as it did at the Broad Street pump in London’s Soho district, where more than 600 people died of cholera in 1854. Communicable diseases touch a nerve of human horror; witness recent, justified panics about Ebola. Lead poisoning, conversely, is not passed from person to person and has no human face. Public-health campaigns may tout the dangers of peeling paint in substandard housing — but, in general, people don’t recoil in terror from a windowsill. We amble peaceably onto old front porches.
This has not prevented what one might call the lead lobby from seeking to discredit researchers like Patterson, or blaming vulnerable populations for their own susceptibility to environmental pollution. The key tools for deflection have long been disinformation and racism. Historians Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner draw on decades of lead-industry memos in which executives openly discuss methods for distracting the public from the dangers of lead poisoning, or obfuscating understanding when citizens and consumers do pay attention. In the 1950s and ’60s, faced with a growing public awareness regarding the dangers of acute lead poisoning, industry spokesmen began to insist that it was only a problem in neighborhoods labeled slums. If only those parents kept their houses tidy and made kids wash their hands, went the implication, then the fact that they were living in surroundings tainted by peeling and chipping paint wouldn’t be a problem. Of course, a great irony of lead — an environmental toxin whose effects are particularly pernicious for young children — is that it tastes sweet. As Markowitz and Rosner report, even this sinister detail seemed to amuse the health-and-safety director of the Lead Industries Association, a man named Manfred Bowditch, who complained in a private letter in 1949 that “these young Baltimore paint eaters were a real headache,” and joked in another private note (this one to the editor of the American Journal of Public Health) that there was “all too much ‘gnaw-ledge’ among Baltimore babies.” 8
In the 1950s, faced with growing public awareness regarding acute lead poisoning, industry spokesmen insisted that it was only a problem in neighborhoods labeled slums.
Quotes such as this — full of such gross, backslapping bravado — have a single plausible defense, which is that this is the spirit that built America. The logic amounts to a moral version of “too big to fail.” The counter to this argument (if you can call it an argument) is that the meticulous work of historians and scientists like Clair Patterson, David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz, and also Yandell Henderson of Yale (an incomplete list, though it will do for now), upholds a vision in which human life is valued — and this is also the spirit that built America.
One way to think of the lead crisis is to imagine looking at your bank statement and noticing that some small sum has been fraudulently deducted every month, for years. You want to get that money back. But you can only stop future deductions. The lead industry has perpetrated just such a fraud on every American — not that every American has had (or has been) a lead-poisoned child. In regard to the overall potential of the citizenry, however, it has been a form of taxation without representation. Instead of quantifying this loss in dollars alone, it is measured in intellectual capital and social justice. This translates to dollars, and it also amounts to something much more profound — the nation’s human capacity.
“If middle-class children were threatened by a tiny outbreak of meningitis or a potential epidemic of SARS, or even a mild flu,” Markowitz and Rosner write,
the nation’s public health profession would have mobilized, closing down the schools where children congregated, watching the airports for sick passengers, initiating public health education campaigns for parents, developing vaccines or even isolating cases in sterile hospital rooms — all in order to stem an infection. But, for at least a century, we have been taught that poor children of color were the primary victims of lead poisoning and, so, the issue and the suffering has largely flown below the radar of professionals who see removing lead as “too costly.” 9
Lead is a heavy metal, which means that its highly charged ions bind inordinately well to certain proteins, impairing production of necessary enzymes and leading to cell death. Lead never breaks down chemically; it does not dissipate or disappear. Once it has entered human bodies, it adversely affects “virtually every organ system,” including the central nervous system. 10 Lead poisoning inhibits the capacity of red blood cells to carry oxygen, resulting in anemia. It can damage kidney, liver, and digestive function; it can cause blindness and deafness. It passes through the blood-brain barrier and interferes with calcium in the brain’s receptor sites. It shrinks the prefrontal cortex, the region of the brain that handles executive function. As early as 1917, a professor at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine recommended that in cases where children were convulsing with no obvious cause, “lead should be suspected.” 11 Two years ago — a full century after the Johns Hopkins doctor’s warning — Mielke co-authored a study on preeclampsia which found that the fetus of a woman with lead poisoning cannot properly signal its nutritional needs in utero. 12 Lead poisoning has no cure. The damage is done immediately and cannot be reversed; if a baby’s blood test shows elevated lead levels, this means only that there is now a chance to identify the source of contamination and prevent damage from getting worse. A child who has suffered lead exposure simply soldiers on in life with a few mental obstacles — impulse-control problems, attention-deficit problems, a slightly depressed IQ score — that he or she did not have before.
One medical term for lead poisoning is “plumbism.” Another is “lead insult.” Its effects were described by the Greek physician Nicander of Colophon in the second century BC. Some scholars consider chronic lead poisoning to have been a contributing factor in the decline and fall of Rome, as patricians absorbed lead from water pipes, sewage pipes, and lead-sweetened wine. 13 Vitruvius knew that lead was poisonous, as did Benjamin Franklin and Charles Dickens. The 17th-century physician Bernardino Ramazzini observed that “demons and ghosts are often found to disturb the miners” who dig lead. 14
Vitruvius knew that lead was poisonous, as did Benjamin Franklin and Charles Dickens. Its effects were described by Nicander of Colophon in the second century BC.
The International Labour Organization adopted standards in 1919 recommending that women and children be “excluded from employment” in jobs where risk was high for lead exposure, such as “furnace work in the reduction of lead or zinc ores.” 15 At the same time, however, lead paint was marketed for children’s toys, and the American auto industry — General Motors in particular — owed its development to leaded gas. “The United States is now the world’s leading supplier of both lead products and anti-lead-poisoning activism,” notes Christian Warren, author of Brush with Death: A Social History of Lead Poisoning. 16 I became interested in how and why all this had happened. So I began to visit Howard Mielke in his lab, as though I were his unofficial graduate student.
I have now visited Mielke many times. But my impression of him formed in the field, as it were, one May morning in 2012, when my wife and I met him outside the house we were renting in the Uptown neighborhood of New Orleans. He had come as a personal favor to our pediatrician, after our nine-month-old baby’s blood test came back showing a high lead level. We spent that night in a hotel with the baby and his five-year-old sister. She had been tested too, but her level was negligible. (Why the discrepancy between the two kids’ tests? Kindergartners don’t crawl around putting everything they see into their mouths the way babies do.)
Lead poisoning is the longest running childhood epidemic in American history. It has no cure. The damage is immediate and cannot be reversed.
We arrived to find Mielke sitting calmly on the front steps. He explained it was obvious where the poison our son ingested had come from: the house next door was being sanded in preparation for painting. Paint chips and dust were everywhere.
It was as though an alternate reality opened up for me. In the first reality — the one in which we had been living — the world was as it seemed. In the second reality, the world was covered in lead. Picture the logo of the Sherwin-Williams Paint Company, created in 1905: a blue-and-white globe over which red paint pours from a can apparently suspended in the upper atmosphere. COVER THE EARTH, it reads. 17
When I first started thinking about lead, I was engulfed in an Ahab-like obsessiveness. Yet when I stopped thinking about lead, it was hard to start again. The subject is like the substance, impenetrable but compelling. Lead is a prism. This is an odd thing to say about an element that has, among its virtues, the ability to block light and radiation. Lead impedes vision, and it impedes thought. The signature of lead in the periodic table is Pb, atomic number 82. Alchemically, it is associated with Saturn. 18 In the individual and in society, its presence is marked by a kind of amnesia.
One agent of this deliberate historical forgetfulness was Robert A. Kehoe, a toxicologist at the University of Cincinnati who was hired in 1925 as chief medical officer for the Ethyl Corporation — the corporation that in 1974 would sponsor the article about lead paint that Howard Mielke read and questioned. Kehoe was hired at Ethyl Corp. by one of its founders, Charles “Boss” Kettering, an executive at General Motors. Kettering registered 186 U.S. patents. He was a founder of Delco sparkplugs, and later — this is ironic at best — a philanthropist who lent his name to the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. In 1923, he oversaw the establishment of Ethyl Corp. as a joint venture between General Motors and Standard Oil of New Jersey (a.k.a. Esso, a.k.a. Exxon) to produce the fuel additive TEL. The formula proved extremely profitable — “a penny’s worth would treat a gallon” — and the oil-refining and automotive industries suppressed alternatives, including the effective and nontoxic ethanol. 19 Kehoe argued that “lead was a natural part of the human environment and people had developed mechanisms over the millennia to excrete lead as rapidly as they inhaled or ingested it.” 20 Patterson rebutted this “evolutionary” theory, noting that Kehoe’s data establishing “normal” or “natural” lead levels drew from tests on populations had already been exposed to lead in the industrial environment — including workers at a plant that produced TEL. 21 Patterson’s tests, in contrast, measured lead concentrations in skeletons from the Nazca era in what is now Peru (c. 400 AD). Their lead levels were lower by a thousand-fold. 22
What degree of contamination might have been suffered by those TEL-plant workers Kehoe tested? Consider the employees of Bayway Refinery.
When I first started thinking about lead, I was engulfed in an Ahab-like obsessiveness. The subject is like the substance, impenetrable but compelling.
In August 1924, the Bayway Refinery in Union County, New Jersey, began manufacturing TEL. By November, five men had died and dozens more had been hospitalized with symptoms of violent mental illness. The county medical examiner “called for an investigation into the mysterious gas that was driving workers crazy.” Headlines followed, with the New York Times and other papers blaring warnings about an airborne toxic cloud that would have been at home in a Don DeLillo novel. The refinery’s chief chemist told reporters, “These men probably went insane because they worked too hard.” 23 Company directors, Kettering said, were “in a blue funk over the whole thing.” 24
A Yale professor named Yandell Henderson, a leading expert on the effects of gas warfare and automotive exhaust, explained to journalists that the “insanity gas,” TEL, was “one of the most dangerous things in the country today.” 25 Henderson knew about TEL because he had refused an offer to study it for GM, informing company brass, “I should want a greater degree of freedom of investigation and funding — in view of the immense public, sanitary and industrial questions involved — than the subordinate relations which you suggest would allow.” 26 Henderson, in other words, was remarkably prescient not only about the dangers of environmental lead but also about the ways in which regulation could be coopted. Speaking to a Senate Committee formed in 1925 to investigate the Bayway incident, he observed,
Perhaps if leaded gasoline kills enough people soon enough to impress the public, we may get from Congress a much-needed law and appropriation for the control of harmful substances other than foods. But it seems more likely that the conditions will grow worse so gradually and the development of lead poisoning will come on so insidiously (for this is the nature of the disease) that leaded gasoline will be in nearly universal use and large numbers of cars will have been sold that can run only on that fuel before the public and the Government awaken to the situation. 27
One Bayway employee jumped from a window. Others hallucinated and were taken from the plant in straitjackets. 28 A worker named Joseph G. Leslie spent 40 years in a psychiatric hospital. His name would have been lost to history were it not for his great-granddaughter, Paula Leslie, of Louisville, Kentucky. “My dad spent his entire childhood and up into high school hearing of his grandfather spoken of in the past tense, as if he was deceased. So when they told him his grandfather had just died” — this was in 1964 — “it was a shock.” 29
Joseph Leslie’s children — Paula’s grandfather and great aunt Ruth (“she was a trip”) — knew that their father was in an institution, although they never went to see him. “There was a hospital called Resurrection in New York, which no longer exists,” Paula told me. “A lot of the workers that went loopy in the beginning, that’s where they took them to. My great-grandfather remained hospitalized. He was at Graystone Park Psychiatric Hospital until the day that he died. The official family story was that he fell at work and hit his head. But you don’t end up in a mental institution for 40 years from hitting your head.” Her great-grandfather had suffered an extreme case of lead poisoning and violent insanity as a result of his exposure to leaded gasoline. 30
This is such a macabre story — but it isn’t only the tragedy of a single family. Joseph G. Leslie’s experience with lead was hidden from the world beyond his family as well, and we have all inherited the deception. The people responsible for introducing this toxin into daily life have not been labeled monsters; they retain their reputations as industrial pioneers who drove the so-called American century. The historian Bill Kovarik, who has reported details about the life and death of Joseph G. Leslie, wrote to me:
On one hand, you see a mighty American industry propelling the country towards victory in WWII and the Cold War, and the profits lifting up great institutions like Sloan-Kettering … On the other hand, you see a nefarious rat-pack of Borgias who literally killed their workers and poisoned their country out of a reckless, breathtaking greed unparalleled in environmental history.
This is not to imply that regulatory progress has not been made. It has. Lead was phased out of paint in 1978 and began to be phased out of gasoline in 1986. The incidence of acute lead poisoning in American children decreased correspondingly. In the same decades, however, new understandings were emerging about the cost of sub-acute lead poisoning — the toll it takes in human potential, as well as the costs to society in remedial education, incarceration, and societal dysfunction. In the 1980s and early ’90s, pediatrician and child psychologist Herbert Needleman conducted pioneering studies using bones and baby teeth — which retain lead and so can be read as archives of exposure — that illustrated what lower-level toxicity can do. In 2005, another doctor, Bruce Lanphear, developed an analytic tool called the Lanphear Curve. This model illustrates how lead insult sustained by a single child, no matter how marginal the individual impairment, remains significant for society at large. Lanphear’s study established that, while loss of an IQ point in one person is almost impossible to measure and cannot determine that person’s fate, the loss of even one point distributed in fractions across a large group shifts the curve in a way that has significant and measurable impacts on society. If you take the top of the bell curve, the median IQ, and nudge it down slightly, the lives of those children in the center change to a degree that is almost impossible to measure. The significant changes occur at either end: fewer kids who qualify as gifted at the top, and more kids who need remedial help at the bottom.
Lead poisoning is the longest running childhood epidemic in American history. Yet far from responding with concern to the statistically significant deficits identified by diagnostic tools like the Lanphear Curve, public awareness has lapsed repeatedly into endemic lead amnesia. In an essay on the history of TEL, Bill Kovarik recalls the warnings of experts like Yandell Henderson following the Bayway Refinery incident. But, Kovarik notes, “this vehement debate was so lost to history that when lawsuits over banning leaded gasoline were brought in 1974, none of the attorneys knew anything about it.” Even the federal court decision backing the Environmental Protection Agency’s ban on leaded gas in 1978 stated: “It is only recently that we have begun to appreciate the danger posed by unregulated modification of the world around us” — apparently unaware of the fact that, in 1925, the U.S. Public Health Service convened a national conference on tetraethyl lead, to be followed by the formation of an investigative task force to study the problem. 31 When the city of Chicago banned leaded gas in 1984, the New York Times described the ordinance as the first of its kind. In fact, the Times itself had covered city and state bans in the mid-1920s. Drawing attention to the contemporary epidemic of lead poisoning is difficult, in other words, because epidemics of lead poisoning have already happened, and fallen away into historical vacuums.
Here is Henderson in 1924: “This is probably the greatest single question in the field of public health that has ever faced the American public. It is the question whether scientific experts are to be consulted, and the action of Government guided by their advice, or whether, on the contrary, commercial interests are to be allowed to subordinate every other consideration to that of profit.” 32
Howard Mielke’s half-century of work on environmental lead pollution has given rise in the last decade to a study of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, where childhood plumbism has been substantially reduced. The flood carried low-lead sediment from coastal regions into urban areas, and reconstruction projects trucked in clean fill and topsoil. Houses were rehabbed, removing lead painted materials in the process. “If we figure out how to solve the problem for New Orleans,” Mielke urges in his soft voice, “we’ll have a model that other cities can follow.” 33
That’s a pretty big “if.” 34 Still, Mielke’s whole career has been dedicated to localized research with implications nationwide. The 1991 segment of Prime Time Live is titled “Hidden Poison.” In it, Mielke walks with Chris Wallace along a tree-lined street in Minneapolis. Gesturing to the ample, shady yards, he says, “We found 500 to 1,000 parts per million in the soils in the areas right around the houses where children are playing.”
“And how bad is that?” asks Wallace.
“If these soils were in a paint can,” Mielke answers. “They would be considered an illegal material. If they were on an industrial site, they would be considered an illegal hazardous waste.” 35
A few years before his Prime Time Live appearance, in 1984, Howard had testified before a U.S. Senate committee chaired by Republican Senator David Durenberger of Minnesota, seeking to have leaded gas banned nationwide — a decision that only EPA regulation or congressional action could ratify. An EPA directive passed some years before had called for a reduction of TEL in gasoline to one-tenth of a gram per gallon by 1986. The lead lobby resisted, and on the agenda for Durenberger’s committee was a proposed law that would have extended the cut-off date for legal leaded gas from 1986 to 1996. 36
If these soils were in a paint can, they would be considered an illegal material. If they were on an industrial site, they would be considered hazardous waste.
As an expert witness, Howard came to Washington with a box of research materials supporting his theory that it was emissions from gasoline, even more than leaded paint, that raised lead levels in city kids. Arriving on Capitol Hill, he was met by a well-dressed woman who told him she would help him to get where he needed to go. She gave every impression that she worked for the Senate Committee itself, and said that she would take his box of papers. Then she disappeared. Howard never saw her, or his notes, again.
I can never pin Howard down on exactly where or how this encounter happened — in a foyer? In a hallway? What precisely did she say? For someone whose professional life revolves around precise measurements, Howard’s delivery of information is sometimes strangely attenuated; a dreaminess attends some of his stories. At times I think this is because his fidelity to facts means he won’t fill in a gap for the sake of narrative. At others I think it’s because scientists and storytellers (not to mention activists) rely on different skills.
“Did it undermine your testimony not to have your notes?” I asked.
“Not at all,” he said. “It made me all the more angry, and more convinced I had to get my point across.”
Indeed, the more I learned about this testimony, the more impressive I found Howard’s performance, and not only because he spoke without notes. His involvement in the issue — his righteous anger — went beyond the fact that he cared passionately about making his findings known. A year before the Capitol Hill appearance, he had discovered that his three-year-old daughter Beverly had elevated lead levels. She was going to have an operation for crossed eyes, itself a symptom of lead poisoning. Since her doctors were ordering blood work in preparation for the surgery, Howard asked them to check for lead. They found it.
He looked everywhere for the source of her exposure. There was nothing in their house; nothing outside it. He started testing every place his child spent time. In the end, he found the problem in the sandbox at her daycare center. The sand hadn’t been changed in years. A few blocks away was an elevated highway.
“When my daughter was poisoned, it occurred to me that a lot of children were being poisoned. It came to me in a dream — the childhood population was being poisoned. I woke from a dream and said ‘Beverly isn’t alone. There must be a lot of children.’”
He found the source of lead exposure in a sandbox at his daughter’s daycare center. The sand hadn’t been changed in years. A few blocks away was an elevated highway.
Shall we say that Howard’s dream yielded realpolitik results? The proposal before the Senate to delay implementation of the national ban on leaded gas was defeated, and the rule went into effect in 1986 as proposed by the House, instead of in 1996. Howard helped to prevent approximately 250,000 tons of lead from being deposited across the country in those ten years.
“We did the right thing in 1984 when we testified before the Senate,” he told me. “I took a lot of heat on that. The lead industry was deeply engaged in trying to prevent anything from happening. Anonymous people writing letters and calling me all hours of the day and night. Drove my wife nuts. I threw out a threatening letter … Wish I had kept it. It said they knew where I lived, they were coming by and were going to fill my yard with lead.”
I am struggling, in this story, to establish Howard as a hero but also a bit of a heretic, in that he has sought throughout his career to bring public awareness to the problem of lead in soil — a mission that, at times, has acquired the unintended appearance of minimizing the problem of lead in paint. Public-minded scientists, after all, must play something of a zero-sum game, because there is only so much money to fund research, and only so much bandwidth in news coverage. It was Howard who made a house call when our son’s exposure to a neurotoxin was discovered — and it was Howard who explained that the source of that exposure was lead paint. I had a sense of him as being a kind of angel. This sounds flattering, but it is not an entirely good thing. Angels are ethereal creatures, not wholly of this world. The story of his stolen Congressional data has stayed with me as an allegory of his larger predicament, and of the predicament of all the scientists who have been trying for over a century to alert Americans to the hazards of lead.
Howard’s documents were real, and they were made to disappear. This is an unusually direct form of the suppression that is more frequently achieved by misdirection, as in a shell game. When it becomes impossible to deny any longer that a substance is toxic, corporations switch tactics, and one industry blames another for being the big bad polluter. A culpability that is real — say, that of the oil industry — is used to cast doubt on the equally real culpability of another industry — say, paint manufacturing. Or vice versa, depending on who is being sued.
A real culpability — say, that of the oil and gas industry — is used to cast doubt on the equally real culpability of another industry — say, paint manufacturing.
It’s this Alice-in-Wonderland logic that has allowed paint companies to cherry-pick from Howard’s findings about gasoline emissions, in order to cast doubt on the very claims being made against them as environmental polluters. Consider a case brought in 2013 by ten California municipalities against three former manufacturers of lead paint, including Sherwin Williams. A state judge ordered the companies to pay $1.15 billion toward abatement of lead still present in California homes. The companies appealed. The judgment was upheld, with residual lead paint deemed a “public nuisance” — although the defendants’ financial burden was reduced by more than half. As recently as the spring of 2018, the companies tried again to overturn the verdict by putting an initiative on the state ballot that would have nullified the judgment against them, and prevented other counties or cities from bringing similar lawsuits against paint manufacturers. 37 Attorneys for the paint companies cited Mielke’s research, including a 1998 paper that explains:
Leaded gasoline and lead in food, but not lead-based paint, are strongly associated with population blood-lead levels in both young children and adults. Soil lead and house dust, but not lead-based paint, are associated with population blood-lead levels in children … Based upon the limited data to date, abatement of soil lead is more effective than abatement of lead-based paint in reducing blood lead levels of young children. 38
Mielke did not participate directly in the California case, though Bruce Lanphear — whose research Mielke supports and with whom Mielke has often collaborated — did testify on behalf of the state. 39
Shell lost that case, just as Sherwin Williams et al. lost theirs, and the state of California won. I don’t want to minimize this fact. I want to emphasize it; it gives me hope. The ballot initiative that the paint companies had shoe-horned into the statewide election failed, and in October 2018 the Supreme Court refused to hear the case, meaning that the California judgement against paint manufacturers will stand. The companies were ordered to pay $409 million into an abatement fund for use by the ten municipalities. 40 It’s not 1.15 billion, but it’s still a major victory.
Even so, I don’t want to minimize the successful litigations. I want to emphasize them; they give me hope.
The thing that I can’t get out of my head, even so, is how effective the strategies of corporate obfuscation and cross-industry finger-pointing can be. As we know, such switcheroos are part of the playbook for other industries sued for damages associated with their products: asbestos, oil, silica, tobacco, and most recently opioid pharmaceuticals.
When I am wearing the lead glasses, I see threats everywhere. Old houses under renovation. Unfiltered tap water. Patches of bare earth in parks (grass is the most protective, as lead dust tends to collect at its roots; even concrete is preferable to dirt, since dust washes away). On the other hand, I don’t always wear the lead glasses, because it’s crazy to minimize real achievements like the California verdict. Besides, it is onerous to view the world as always and only doused in lead particulate; you can’t respond to every threat as though it were an existential crisis. In fatigued moments, I reflect that I was born in 1965 in Manhattan. At that time, the threshold of concern for blood-lead levels as established by the Centers for Disease Control was 60 micrograms (μg) of lead per deciliter (dL) of blood. There was lead in soil, in dust, in paint, spewing from exhaust pipes in the street. For comparison: at some point in my lead odyssey I spoke to a health professional who said that it was important to “find a pediatrician you could work with,” when it came to lead diagnoses. “Some doctors,” he explained, “are okay with a score of 4 or 5 μg/dL. Some are okay with a 3.” 41 As though the issue wasn’t the kid’s health, but the quality of the medical rationalization. At the same time, of course, it’s true that distinctions between 3, 4, and 5 amount to nothing compared to 60 μg/dL. Surely, as a child, I had a level much higher than my son’s, and I turned out okay. Right?
A few months before that day in 2012 when my wife and I met Mielke on our front steps, our neighbor on State Street decided to have her house painted. She hired a guy who worked at the hardware store. He came by and politely told us he would be doing some sanding. Then he showed up at odd intervals — late afternoons, weekends. Hours, I now know, when employees of the New Orleans Department of Safety and Permits are not on duty. He hung a blue tarp from the roof. White plumes escaped above and below the tarp, and the area around our front door gathered a fine coating of dust.
We were not oblivious to the threat this represented. On the contrary, we taped our windows, hosed down our steps, took our shoes off upon entering the house, and arduously swiffered the floor every other day. Nevertheless, I would often lie in the hammock I had strung up out front with my little bald baby boy between my legs, and listen as he made vociferous speeches of babble to the empty street. Dust had collected on the ground around us, and particles flew up against the blue sky, glittering like fine-grained confetti. And yet on those pretty dusks I would casually shake out the hammock and lie back. Finally, we took the baby for a checkup. Nine months was early for a blood test, but we were anxious.
When I am wearing the lead glasses, I see threats everywhere. Old houses under renovation. Unfiltered tap water. Patches of bare earth in parks.
If we knew enough about the danger to want to test our child’s blood, why didn’t we know enough to confront our neighbor, call the city to complain?
One way of answering that question is to describe an afternoon some four years later. Picture a boy and girl, kindergarten classmates, walking along the sidewalk after school on a sunny afternoon. They are on their way to a play date. Behind them walk the two fathers, Charlie and me. As we approach Charlie’s house, I hear a sound that sends a shiver through me: the whine of an electric sander. Across the street, men on ladders are sanding a house with none of the protections required by law. No HEPA-vac sander being used to trap the dust. No tarps to contain it. No plastic on the ground extending ten feet from the house. My son is now five, and I have become a sanding vigilante. I know what the federal regulations are; I know that a contractor in violation could, in theory, be fined $37,500 by EPA. 42
But it’s a lovely day, and it’s just spot-sanding. Do I tell Charlie that the kids are threatened? And in so doing, explain that he has missed a call to action, that his parenting is insufficiently vigilant? It would be tiring and ugly, telling the workers to stop. I thought, I’ll let it slide. But Charlie and his wife had a new baby, less than two months old. A few particles of dust drifting from one side of the street to the other could, if they got on the baby’s hand and into her mouth, cause a small amount of brain damage. How small? A better question: how exhausting is it to suddenly have to calculate the odds that the baby sister of the child playing with your child might lose half an IQ point if you don’t drag your ass across the street to confront some workmen?
I told Charlie. His face went somber. He approved. I crossed the street. The guy on the ladder came down with a bounce in his step, thinking I might want to get his card, hire him. But the crew stopped so quickly, once their boss heard me out, that my sense that they knew they were skirting the law was confirmed. Things with Charlie were never the same, though. Some tiny corruption of the friendship had taken place.
In 2012, when we heard the news from our pediatrician and evacuated our apartment, we checked into a hotel in the French Quarter. It had dim blue hallways and headboards of pleated white leather, a snazzy place meant for trysts, not kids. The delicate throb of electronic music from the bar permeated the lobby. While my daughter learned to play pool on a table with red felt, I tapped out frantic emails on my laptop. The immediate task was to find a place to live until the house we were already buying was ready. 43
The emergency of a child’s elevated lead level creates a chaos similar to that when a house catches fire, but without the clarity of a burnt structure. You have every incentive to not see the problem.
We were professional people with incomes to cushion us, people who were purchasing property, who could decamp to a nice hotel when crisis struck. What would we have done if we were not so lucky? The emergency of an elevated lead level creates a chaos similar to that when a house catches fire, but without the clarity of a burnt-out structure. Should you move in a rush and find somewhere to stay while repairs are made? To say that the resulting anxiety and expense are as bad as the problem they address would be untrue. But it can feel true in the moment.
This is the opposite facet of the lead prism, where instead of revealing the invisible, the glasses do what lead traditionally does: block out and seal off. You have every incentive to not see the problem, not to hear it.
The decision to switch the water supply for the city of Flint, Michigan, from the Detroit water system to the Flint River was made on April 25, 2014. It was, as we now know, a money-saving measure, as was the further decision to forgo treatment of the water with anti-corrosion chemicals that would have prevented particles from leaching out across an aging network of lead and iron pipes. 44
Complaints about the smell and color of the water from the new source — “aesthetic concerns,” as a member of Michigan governor Rick Snyder’s administration put it — began almost immediately. 45 Snyder eventually acknowledged “things that were not as fully understood” as they should have been. But by the time of that admission, internal emails show, city officials had already been anxious about Flint River water for a year. 46 On January 23, 2015, a staffer in Snyder’s office had written: “This is a public relations crisis — because of a real or perceived problem is irrelevant — waiting to explode nationally.” 47
That “irrelevant” — the difference between children being poisoned or not poisoned — remains breathtaking. Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the Flint pediatrician who first diagnosed the widespread lead exposure, has remarked, “If you were going to put something in a population to keep them down for generations to come, it would be lead.” 48
The pediatrician observes, ‘If you were going to put something in a population to keep them down for generations to come, it would be lead.’
Dr. Hanna-Attisha is a hero. Another Flint hero is LeeAnne Walters. Her children had been getting rashes from the strange, smelly water; the family’s hair was falling out, and she was convinced there was a problem. Launching her own research, she discovered the city’s failure to treat Flint River water with anti-corrosives. She also read about Marc Edwards, a civil engineer and MacArthur Foundation Fellow from Virginia Tech, who in 2003 had identified a similar problem of corrosion and lead leachate in the water in Washington, D.C. 49
Walters called him. “Over the phone, he walked her through how to take her own water samples. The next day she sent them via FedEx to Edwards for testing. It was the worst lead level he had ever seen.” 50 Walters subsequently organized a community water-sampling campaign, collecting more than 800 samples in three weeks. These revealed lead levels as high as 13,200 parts per billion (ppb) — more than double the EPA’s standard for materials classified as hazardous waste. 51
Walters also called the EPA, where she encountered Miguel Del Toral, the Regulations Manager for Region #5, which includes Michigan. Del Toral inquired with the state Department of Environmental Quality, who assured him that anti-corrosion measures were in place. But Walters’s findings about city practices suggested something else was going on. Del Toral drafted a report on the DEQ failure, a copy of which he gave to Walters; she gave it to the ACLU, who gave it to the press. 52 For regulatory failures to become known, in other words, a stay-at-home mom had to become an investigative reporter and guerrilla infrastructural engineer, and a federal regulator had in effect to go rogue. About the EPA, Edwards told me, “They had one job, which was to raise a flag. And they didn’t raise the flag.”
The Washington, D.C. scandal had taken place twelve years earlier. The Washington Post had first reported it as a local story, then as a national one. The common theme was the fact that agencies such as the CDC and EPA, which are supposed to protect and inform the public, did not do so. The local story broke on January 31, 2004. 53 The Senate subsequently held hearings calling for an investigation into the EPA, and one senator went on to say that she and her husband were having the service lines of their Georgetown house checked for lead. 54 Ten months later, the Post ran the wider story, which began, “Cities across the country are manipulating the results of tests used to detect lead in water, violating federal law and putting millions of Americans at risk of drinking more of the contaminant than their suppliers are reporting.” 55 The sub-headline — “Utilities Manipulate or Withhold Test Results to Ward Off Regulators” — could have appeared during the Flint crisis, and is no less relevant in 2019.
‘Why do these people lack empathy?’ I asked. ‘They’ve seen what happens to people who have it,’ he replied.
By the time I caught up with Marc Edwards in February 2016, Flint’s water crisis had become a media maelstrom. What I wanted most to understand was why agencies such as the EPA were still functioning so poorly.
“The people in these jobs probably got into these professions for all the right reasons, with all the right aspirations,” Edwards said. “But the default positions in these agencies is to lose your empathy with time, to forget about people and to focus on the technicalities and legalities.”
“Why do these people lack empathy?” I asked.
“They have seen what happens to people who have it,” he replied.
When I moved to New Orleans from downtown Manhattan in 2008, the debris from the hurricane, literal and psychic, remained evident across the city. Once, I made the mistake of describing Katrina as a natural as opposed to manmade disaster, and was vehemently corrected. Some people go so far as to call it the Federal Flood. 56 Katrina was a hurricane, a flood, an engineering fiasco, a governmental fiasco, a humanitarian catastrophe, and a media sensation. It has since become a figure of speech, like Waterloo; early in 2016, Governor Snyder called the Flint crisis “his Katrina.” 57
“A remoteness both geographical and psychic isolates New Orleans,” the novelist Nancy Lemann wrote a week after the hurricane, when it wasn’t clear that the city would recover. Her essay evokes the hours of waiting for a hurricane to hit, a kind of waiting New Orleanians know well: “The air turns green, the leaves swirl around in the wind, then everything becomes very still, the golf course looks like a ballroom, there is a sensation of nameless excitement.” It’s beautiful writing, especially the ballroom line, which makes the outside into an inside, and suggests the adrenalin of living on a precipice, as though the city has made a cult of laughing off annihilation, rendering everything absurd and negotiable. Lemann continues, “In that atmosphere of isolation, a lot of things have time to develop. A lot of personality. A lot of talent. Some desperation.” 58
In 2015, I attended the Healthy Housing Conference in a hotel ballroom in New Orleans. The CDC had recently updated their guidelines regarding acceptable levels of lead in a child’s blood, lowering the threshold from 10 to 5 μg/dL. In theory, every child with a level above 5 should now be visited by a social worker, who should assist the family and the landlord in identifying the lead source and remediating it. In 1973, the action-level had been 50 μg/dL. In 1985, it was lowered to 25. In 1990, it was 10. 59 I heard the phrase “5 to 9” often that day at the Healthy Housing Conference. These are the lead levels in children who until recently would have been considered safe, but are now understood to be in danger, and mandated to receive social services. Most conference participants were state employees, in charge of administering state programs across the country. Their workload was increasing exponentially.
In 1973, the action-level for lead in a child’s blood was 50 micrograms per deciliter. In 1985, it was 25. By 1990, it was 10. In 2015, the CDC lowered it to 5.
I had written an op-ed in the New York Times describing my experiences with lead in New Orleans, and had been invited to appear on a panel about “getting the message out.” I talked about how parents of young children — who in theory could be drivers of regulatory change — are easily dismissed by the powers that be. “We are thought to be a bit hysterical at the best of times,” I said. This got a few laughs. 60
Then Howard Mielke stood up to ask a question. “What about the fact that the official household-remediation program isn’t bringing lead levels in the affected children down significantly?” The Healthy Homes program, he noted, focuses only on lead-based paint; the atmospheric fallout of millions of tons of lead particles from the use of tetraethyl lead in gasoline is thus, again, ignored. His question received no answer.
I knew almost nothing about New Orleans when I arrived, and spent a lot of my free time roaming around, soaking it in. On these rambles, usually in late afternoon or early evening, I saw all sorts of striking things: A school marching band practicing on a side street in full uniform, the students all very young, trumpets and trombones gleaming, the cockades on their tall hats catching the waning sun. The epic root systems of live oaks causing sidewalks to rollercoaster. The eerie sight of business-district skyscrapers with ground-floor windows boarded up and upper-floor windows busted out. At one point, I drove for the first of many times under an overpass supported by concrete pillars covered with murals of mighty trees — the Claiborne Avenue overpass, nicknamed The Monster, a stretch of Interstate 10 which runs for about two miles above the avenue. There was something about the painted trees, a crowd of flailing limbs submerged in shadow, that carried a faint echo of Middle Passage grief.
Claiborne Avenue was once lined by 200 oak trees — the longest stand of oaks in the country. It was the heart of the Treme neighborhood, home of Black Mardi Gras, a hub of Black life in an era when Blacks who weren’t working there were not welcome in the adjacent French Quarter. In 1968, in an echo of Robert Moses’s disastrous proposal to build a highway down Seventh Avenue bisecting Greenwich Village, plans were drawn for an overpass and highway to run along the Mississippi River, demolishing part of the French Quarter. The French Quarter highway was defeated, but the Treme community’s simultaneous objection to the overpass had no political muscle behind it. Two historic neighborhoods were threatened. One escaped, the other didn’t. 61
Once you put on the lead glasses, you see that the evisceration of a thriving community through an ill-considered infrastructure project is only part of the assault — perhaps the less violent part. The area has some of the highest soil-lead levels and blood-lead levels in the city. 62 Recall Dr. Hanna-Attisha’s description of decisions made in Flint: “to keep a group of people down for generations.” 63
Shortly after the Healthy Homes Conference, I went to a community garden in Treme to assist with the delivery of a truckload of fresh earth. Our son’s lead levels had improved. We had moved to the new house, scrupulously tested beforehand. Yet here I was on a beautiful autumn day, meeting Howard Mielke once again. He stood amid the rows of planting beds that we would soon be remediating. Behind him loomed The Monster.
Once you put on the lead glasses, you see the evisceration of a thriving community through an ill-considered infrastructure project as only part of the assault — the less violent part.
Other volunteers arrived. We dug out the beds with shovels. Then we unfurled huge spools of a geotextile designed to keep the lead-contaminated soil from seeping up and mixing into the fresh topsoil. The fabric was a bright saffron, the color of a monk’s robe or something Christo would use to wrap an island.
Next to the garden stood the ruin of a large house. Even in 2015, a decade after Katrina, this was a common sight, especially in an historically Black neighborhood like Treme. I started talking to a young woman named Malaika Ludman who was there with her husband and sister and her sister’s daughter, an energetic kid running around. The little girl had been diagnosed with an elevated blood-lead level, as had Malaika’s baby son, and worry about their kids was what brought his parents and his aunt, as it brought me, to volunteer. We talked about the challenges of protecting children in a city like New Orleans; about the renovations they were planning to their house and my own struggles to scrape the exterior of mine; the cost of it all; the difficulty of doing it ourselves. Then a truck rumbled up the street and dumped a wonderful pile of rich, dark earth.
Before anyone did anything, a colleague of Howard’s tested the delivery with an x-ray fluorescent spectrometer or XRF gun. This device looks like a cross between a cordless drill and a weapon from Star Trek, and you can point it at anything to receive a readout on lead levels. I was excited to see it; I coveted one. They cost 20 thousand dollars. We were given the all-clear, and everybody began to shovel out the rich, clean soil.
I stayed in touch with Malaika after the garden episode, trading intermittent updates. “The renovation is still in process (does it ever end??),” she wrote a year after we met. “But the exterior was beautifully and responsibly painted a year-and-a-half ago. We recently remediated the soil in our backyard, which had excessively high levels of lead. It took a long time — David did the work himself, except for one day he hired guys to help wheel the river sand from the front of our house to the back. Now [our son] can finally enjoy our big backyard.”
Later, I wrote sharing my thought that, as one’s kids aged out of toddlerhood, it became difficult to stay focused on the larger crisis of lead. Malaika answered,
The only instances where the thought has crossed my mind that lead damaged my child is when he has really dramatic temper tantrums … but then I realize every toddler has those, and the lead may not be to blame. I’m actually very impressed by my son’s language skills, memory, social and emotional intelligence, manners — the list goes on. That’s when I count my blessings and say to myself, well, I must have gotten lucky. His levels never exceeded a 5, but that was still high enough to scare me. At last check (at his 2-year wellness visit), his levels were somewhere around a 3.5. My obsession with protecting my child from lead contamination decreases as he gets older. But I still believe that I have a duty to inform other parents of little ones. 64
I went by that block again recently, three years after the topsoil-remediation project. Like much of New Orleans, parts of Treme once dotted with houses distinctly patinaed with age are now populated with upscale renovations. Still, it was a surprise to drive down the block and see that the ruined house next to the garden had been redone. Beside it stood a matching structure, huge and white. 65 It took me a moment to realize that the garden was gone. I thought of all the fresh soil, and the orange fabric we had laid down with such care.
Adrienne Katner, Assistant Professor of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences at Louisiana State University School of Public Health, also gave a talk at the 2015 Healthy Housing Conference. Her paper was titled “Quantification of Drinking-Water Lead Levels Using Innovative Methods: Implications for Environmental, Educational and Regulatory Interventions.” I missed it. 66 So did everyone else. “There were five people there,” she told me later, droll and fatalistic. A few months after that, conditions in Flint were national front-page news. Awareness was raised — again — of the insidious effects of lead poisoning in America. For a moment — again — amnesia lifted. People all over the country looked at taps in their homes and drinking fountains in their children’s schools, and worried that they might have a problem too. In New Orleans, the scientist working to get water tested was Katner.
Katner is a New Orleans native, with a doctorate in Environmental Science and Engineering from UCLA. In 2006, she moved back to Louisiana to work as an environmental health scientist for the Office of Public Health. (She stayed until 2013, then moved to LSU-New Orleans.) “I knew I was in deep when I came back from California,” Katner says. “Louisiana is notoriously corrupt. I was naive about government officials here. Their attitude is: ‘We have to protect ourselves from the public. We have to conceal things.’ Working for the State of Louisiana, you learn to ask yourself, ‘What industry is this going to impact?’ The state is for industry and not for people.”
In New Orleans, Adrienne Katner borrowed the Flint playbook for dealing with government inertia. That is, she took matters into her own hands.
Katner was still a state employee when she began to look into the lead-in-water problem, after reviewing worrisome data about compliance with water-testing guidelines in the city post-Katrina. Her suspicions persisted after her shift to the university. Katner has coauthored a number of papers with Marc Edwards (as well as with Howard Mielke), and she borrowed the Flint playbook for dealing with government inertia. That is, she took matters into her own hands, and in 2014 she was awarded a small grant from the Louisiana Board of Regents — from an educational body, not a regulatory one — to investigate water lead levels in New Orleans. “I was concerned enough about the water that I decided to do a study myself,” she tells me. “I was doing this solely as an independent scientist, out of academic curiosity and public health concern, not as a government representative or contractor.” A city program did exist for testing children’s lead levels. However, as Mielke pointed out at the Healthy Housing conference, the program tested only for paint-based exposure. It didn’t test for soil-lead derived from gas emissions, and it didn’t include analysis of the water supply either.
New Orleans began to lay down lead water-service lines in the 1830s. In 1851, a Dr. Erasmus Darwin Fenner reported in an article for the Southern Medical Review that colic epidemics swept New Orleans in 1838, 1849, and 1850 — the years in which new lead pipe was laid. 67 Colic is related to lead poisoning. Dr. Fenner sounded the alarm, but it wasn’t heard. Water-lead levels, as Katner says, “weren’t a hot topic,” and the problem stayed out of sight, buried like the water lines themselves, for more than a century.
Katner’s study, which ran from 2015 through 2017, analyzed samples from 376 residential sites 68 Results in effect confirmed Dr. Fenner’s findings, suggesting that the spike Katner had observed in childhood lead levels was likely being caused by the water-service line replacements then in progress across the city. 69 The Sewerage & Water Board was upgrading lead conduits on the public side of homeowners’ property lines. They were not replacing pipes on the private sides, and the disturbance around those old pipes was loosening lead particles; guidelines for flushing the lines were only inconsistently effective. The city was not legally required to inform the public about these issues, and had no information campaign in place. 70 To make matters worse, Katner explained, the process of water-sample collection by which the map for service-line replacements was determined is easily manipulated.
There are tricks for reducing liability. Remediation is an expense that utilities down’t want, and they game the system.
One loophole is the federal Lead and Copper Rule, established in 1991. Homes with a lead water-service line or a copper line with lead feeder are at high risk for contamination, and EPA mandates testing. The Lead and Copper Rule stipulates that up to 10% of households sampled are allowed to report lead levels that exceed 15 ppb. If more than 10% of a given sample shows tap water with lead levels exceeding 15 ppb, then utilities must alert their customers and replace pipes. But, of course, this means that if 9% of high-risk households demonstrate high levels, no action need be taken; a one-percent differential can save utilities a great deal of money, while exposing a large number of families. There are other tricks for reducing liability as well. “If you sample the first drop out of the tap, you never see the lead from the service line,” says Katner. “If you collect the sample at low flow, you won’t get as much lead. Remediation is an expense that utilities don’t want, and they game the system.”
Katner took her findings to the New Orleans city council. “I told them there were inconsistencies, that I was concerned about how samples were being collected, and that there should be an investigation. But no one heard the message.” So she submitted her data to the New Orleans Inspector General. Finally, in 2017, a report was issued finding that the partial water-service line replacements were putting city residents at risk. In response, the Sewerage & Water Board announced a change in policy requiring public education on the topic. Katner notes, nevertheless, that her own sister had a partial line-replacement completed at her house in December 2018 — “and she was not alerted until several days later about the risks of partials, or strategies to reduce lead exposure. She did not have a filter at the time, and only realized there might be a problem after finding plumbing scale and sediment and debris coming out of her tap.” Katner’s sister contacted local news, who investigated. A day-and-a-half after the partial line replacement was completed, her house registered water-lead levels as high as 158 ppb.
“You can’t pretend the corruption in Louisiana — and elsewhere — doesn’t exist.” Katner observes. “I think people in government get tired of seeing and hearing the same old crap, the same complaining. One of the higher-ups, when I first started working for the state, told me, ‘If you don’t look for it, you won’t find it.’ Really the only thing to do is get a water filter.”
Katner and her sister grew up in a household of ten children. All the kids drank tap water as a matter of principle, because their father was, for a number of years, in charge of the Sewerage & Water Board — the very agency on which Katner’s sister blew the whistle with local media. Harold Katner was also a director of the planning commission. It was his decision in 1969 to put the Superdome downtown, as opposed to out in the suburbs where most arenas in those days were built. 71
“Did he know that there might be a problem with lead in pipes?” I asked Adrienne.
“The Lead and Copper Rule wasn’t passed until 1991, and he was in charge of the S&WB in the ’80s. But he wanted everyone to know that we drank unfiltered water. He was an upright man who took his job seriously. He thought it would be unethical if the person in charge of the city’s drinking water treated his kids differently than everyone else.”
Katner grew up in a household of ten children. All the kids drank tap water as a matter of principle, because their father was in charge of the Sewerage & Water Board.
The daughter of the man once in charge of the city’s water has become an expert on the safety, or lack thereof, of that water. I have thought a lot about this decision by Mr. Katner — one of those deeply ethical choices that seems almost unhinged, or at any rate one I myself would probably not make. It sheds light on Adrienne’s slow-burn indignation about people working in government who have no regard for standards of the sort her father held. Katner’s young nephew had been drinking unfiltered water at home, too. But only until his aunt’s research and his mother’s public advocacy made it clear that the family needed a reverse-osmosis filter.
If Howard Mielke has been the first advisor in my one-man lead-studies program, then Adrienne Katner became the second member of my faculty committee. The third is Monique Harden.
“It all starts with language,” Monique told me at our first meeting, in the spring of 2017. I had explained my inquiry to her on the phone. We met in Palmer Park, a square of lawn with benches and a playground, and as I arrived in the company of my kids, it occurred to me that she and I had not exchanged information about what we look like. I glanced around. A woman was moving deliberately across the grass, carrying a blue bucket and a grabber tool. She was sweeping her gaze back and forth along the ground, in the manner of someone swinging a metal detector on a beach. This was Monique Harden, Assistant Director of Law and Policy for the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, multitasking by cleaning up the park. We made our introductions and she continued her round, a trash-picking Dr. Johnson accompanied by her Boswell. We came to a stop in front of a sign that read NO LOITERING AFTER DARK.
‘Explain to me how a school gets moved to a toxic dump,’ I had said. ‘It all starts with language,’ she had answered.
“I really don’t like that,” she said. “It feels like an attempt to be controlling. There is no law that says you can’t be in the park after dark. Someone just put it up because they felt they could.”
“I wonder who?” I said.
“Actually, it’s a friend of mine,” she said. “But don’t tell anyone.”
I had called Harden because I wanted to hear more about a pair of lawsuits then being prepared for federal court and the courts of the State of Louisiana by the Alumni Association of the Walter L. Cohen College Prep school, which is located just beyond the perimeter of the city’s celebrated Garden District, in the neighborhood loosely called Uptown. Harden was representing the alumni group as they fought the Recovery School District — a special jurisdiction created by the state legislature that, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, had gained control over 102 of the 126 schools in New Orleans. The district wanted to relocate Walter L. Cohen from its longtime home to a different site, on a toxic dump. 72 The school’s student body has long been almost exclusively African American, and the alumni, Harden explained, are “very active. Their high school shaped them into the adults that they are. Everything from opera to engineering was taught at that school. And it’s two blocks from St. Charles Avenue, in the zip code that has experienced the highest increase in property values since Katrina. Developers want that site. So they said to the community, ‘We can build you a brand new shiny building … over there!’”
“Explain to me how a school gets moved to a toxic dump,” I had said.
“It all starts with language,” she had answered. 73
“Like the way our government goes about protecting our health and the environment — language as deception. Look at the way the Clean Air Act bills have been written, both in 1970 and 1990. The name ‘Clean Air Act’ creates a concept of what the law is. But all the laws did was to codify existing industrial practices around air pollution. Industry dictated the terms of the Clean Air Act. So when constituents have a problem with air pollution and look to the Clean Air Act, they find it doesn’t protect them. Then there is education, which is another tool, right? We have a history in this state in which the very act of educating Black people was illegal.”
“It was?” I asked, thus setting up a paradigm that will consistently structure our future conversations, in which Monique is the patient educator and I am an idiot.
‘In Louisiana,’ says Monique Harden, ‘we have gone from slave plantations to industrial plants.’
“Yes, Tom,” she says. “During slavery, followed by Jim Crow. And education is still used as a weapon against communities targeted for environmental pollution. Plans are circulated in public as required by law, and then you see the strategic use of hyper-technical jargon, alphabet-soup acronyms. What they’re really saying is, ‘We don’t want to hear from you. We don’t want input.’ If you’ve ever read Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man — well, you can expand that to communities.”
Lead contamination, Harden says, is “the bargain Louisiana has made with toxic industries, which flows from the devaluation of human beings. You don’t respect bodies. People. Where they live. Anything about their life and dreams and what they could pursue. You can look the other way, because you always have. In Louisiana, we have gone from slave plantations to industrial plants.”
The Walter L. Cohen school was slated to be moved to a lot in Central City, off Martin Luther King Boulevard in view of the Superdome. Louis Armstrong writes in his memoir about this very spot. It was known as the Silver City Dump — a stinking pile to which half the city’s refuse was carted every day until the late 1930s. He describes going there as a last resort, to look for food: “When the garbage wagons arrived at the Silver City dump, a lot of poor colored people were waiting for them with pokers in their hands to pick out the good garbage from the bad.” 74 In 2010, when soil-lead levels at the site were tested, they were 40 times higher than allowed by the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality. 75
The word ‘remediation’ is misapplied here. When you remediate something, the goal is to clean it up totally; the implication is that it’s healed, it’s clean, it’s no longer contaminated.
Despite this danger, the lot had been occupied for decades by another school, a vocational high school named Booker T. Washington. Funded by the Works Progress Administration in 1942, Washington was the first high school planned, designed, and built for African American students in New Orleans, with a grand Art Deco auditorium where Mahalia Jackson performed; the whole place had been shuttered since Katrina. 76 The William L. Cohen school case was settled in 2015, and Harden and her clients won. Yet a new school is being built on the Silver City Dump site after all. A charter school founded by the Knowledge Is Power Program and renamed KIPP-Booker T. Washington, opened in 2016 at a temporary site nearby. When the new building is ready, KIPP-Booker T. Washington will move back to its original location at the former dump site. The district has conducted a partial removal of contaminated soil, and installed a geotextile barrier covered by new topsoil; most of the lot will also be paved with concrete. Initially LDEQ approved a plan by the Recovery School District that entailed removing the top three feet of contaminated soil, although environmental reviews of the site had already established that contamination extended to a depth of at least twelve feet. 77 Harden is still monitoring the situation. “Of course, KIPP says they have no concerns about the contamination,” she says. “But the word ‘remediation’ would be misapplied here. When you remediate something, the goal is to clean it up totally, no matter what methods you use; the implication of ‘remediation’ is that it’s healed, it’s clean, it’s no longer contaminated. What you’re doing in a ‘removal,’ as the word indicates, is leaving contamination on the site and then building something else on top of it.”
Harden sees the school district as particularly complacent — or worse.
The leaders of the Cohen alumni are in their fifties and older. They’re looking out for the next generations; they consider the health and welfare of the mostly African American students as something to protect. Their primary adversaries have been school officials who are resistant to the idea that no school should be built on a former waste dump. During the 2015 state legislative session, school officials actually testified against a bill championed by the Cohen alumni that would prohibit the construction of a school on land used for waste disposal. These are the same school officials who boast of getting LEED awards from the Green Building Council for schools that meet eco-friendly design and construction standards. The same officials say the site will be safe because they’re going to install barriers between the kids and the contaminated soil. But I don’t believe it’s safe for any school to be built on a former waste dump. I also know that it’s not safe to 1) remove a portion of the contaminated soil with limited precautions for nearby residents who might be exposed during that removal process; 2) place a geotextile barrier over the excavation; 3) fill with “clean soil”; and 4) cover with grass or concrete, because the barrier does not prevent long-term exposure to contaminants that can become available for exposure through vapor intrusion inside the school building, or the migration of contaminants in the soil and the formation of cracks in concrete as a result of subsidence.
In New Orleans, where concrete floors turn into fun-house surfaces riven by some combination of tree roots, subsidence, or erosion caused by rain, the threat of “vapor” intruding through cracked concrete cannot be received as merely technical. I had another conversation with Monique in which she summed up: “This is a city where we spend fourteen billion dollars on levees, and when a storm comes the best we can do is run.”
What form, then, should remediation take? Who should pay for it, and how much would it cost? To take the latter questions first: In 2017, the Pew Charitable Trusts released a cost-benefit analysis considering various responses to childhood lead exposure. The inquiry, jointly sponsored by Pew with the Health Impact Project and the Robert Wood Johnson Trust, looked at data from 20 American cities, New Orleans among them. One finding states: “Removing leaded drinking-water service lines from the homes of children born in 2018 would protect more than 350,000 children and yield $2.7 billion in future benefits, or about $1.33 per dollar invested.” Another finding: “Eradicating lead-paint hazards from older homes of children from low-income families would provide $3.5 billion in future benefits, or approximately $1.39 per dollar invested, and protect more than 311,000 children.” 78 Still further findings measure the effects of contractors complying with EPA regulations on home renovation; of eliminating lead from jet fuel (where it is still in use) to the benefit of children who live near airports; and of intervening through early-childhood education for those who have already been poisoned.
“Ideally we would do them all,” Corwin Rhyan, a research analyst on the project, told me when we spoke. “But when you are talking about a limited budget at the fed, state, and city levels, they will prioritize. That’s why we recommend focus on low-incomes homes. Mitigating the greatest harm first.”
According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, remediating lead in the homes of low-income families in the study would cost $2.4 billion. The benefit would be $3.9 billion.
Remediating lead in the homes of low-income families in the cities studied would cost $2.4 billion, and the benefit would be $3.9 billion. This would not, of course, shield kids while they’re in school. It’s a worthy outcome, nevertheless: give a dollar now, and receive a return of $1.39. When do I get the payoff? “Ah,” says Rhyan, “that’s the question. The benefits accrue through a lifetime. Because of greater education and IQ outcomes, children are more likely to be employed and earn higher wages. But those benefits don’t all go to a single child — they show up in lower healthcare costs, in taxes paid. So it’s hard for you as an investor — a city administrator, say, who supports a tax hike to pay for remediation — to get that $1.39 return. We call it the Wrong Pocket Problem. Someone can make an investment to benefit a lot of different stakeholders in the future. But it’s rare that the individual investor sees that return.”
If it’s tricky to figure out how to pay for a solution, and how to measure its effectiveness, it is challenging as well to sort out what physical form an intervention should take. Consider the high-tech fabric that reminded me of monks’ robes at the Treme garden, which we unfurled with such confidence and hope. The orange material was presumably comparable to the geotextile barrier promised at the KIPP-Washington site — the very barrier that Monique Harden decries as woefully inadequate.
As Monique explains, the issue is in part historical. For, in addition to her doubts about the physical effectiveness of such measures, her skepticism takes into account the fact that KIPP-Washington will not be the first school in an African American neighborhood to be established on a toxic lot. The Agriculture Street Dump in the Desire section of New Orleans opened in 1909 and caught fire so often that it earned the sobriquet Dante’s Inferno. In 1978, the dump was closed, covered with sand, and redeveloped as a residential tract, including public housing and the Robert R. Moton Elementary School. Reports of trash working its way to the surface and abnormally high rates of local illness became common. Finally, in 1991, the CDC revised its lead-contamination guidelines from 25 to 10 μg/dL, and the Agriculture Street area was designated a Superfund site. Just this year, Orleans Parish was ordered to pay $12 million to settle a class-action suit by former Moton Elementary students.
The judgment amounts to $1,000 per student per year of attendance at Moton, and this sounds like great news. There is a catch, though: Provisions of the Louisiana state constitution allow school boards to enforce such judgments at their discretion. “I have what is called a paper judgment,” says Joseph Bruno, Sr., the lawyer who brought the suit on behalf of Moton alumni. “I have to wait for the good graces of the school board.” 79
A true remediation of lead-contaminated soil — so that, in Monique’s words, a site is “healed, it’s clean, it’s no longer contaminated” — is expensive. But not prohibitively so — certainly not compared to the cost of lead poisoning as charted on the Lanphear Curve. Soil remediation could be funded in large part through government lawsuits and fines against polluters, which is the remedy sought by the ten California municipalities who sued paint companies and won. What happens, then, when governments and administrative boards themselves thwart restitution, as in the cases of Moton Elementary and Walter L. Cohen Prep? What if paint companies, too, circumvent punishment through legal loopholes in sampling and enforcement, as Katner has found? The burden of proof in suits against industrial polluters is on the plaintiff (e.g. the ten California municipalities), who must show that a particular lead source (in this case paint) caused elevated lead levels in a given population. And, despite the California precedent, definitive cause-and-effect findings can still be difficult to establish. They can, for starters, be muddied by pointing to negligence by the auto and gas industries.
This, again, is where the perspectives and tactics of scientists and activists can come into conflict. Mielke sees the geotextile barrier as effective in technical terms that are quantifiable by chemical analysis. Harden worries that the geotextile barrier is the result — and the harbinger — of a will on the part of city administrators to exploit and ignore the needs of disenfranchised New Orleanians.
Meanwhile, in Flint, a related disagreement of still more serious proportions has recently unfolded. Marc Edwards’s tenure as a hero of the water crisis came to an end in the mind of local activists in the fall of 2017, when his own testing affirmed findings by the state of Michigan showing that lead levels in the city had fallen far enough to meet federal guidelines. Dismayed, the activist community repudiated their erstwhile scientific advisor, worrying that Edwards was “giving in to the narrative of the state, and not the narrative that Flint was facing.” 80
It’s an old story — a scientist struggles to characterize reality as he sees it. Tries to speak what he perceives to be the truth. And in return gets the wrath of the entire world.
I was disturbed by this reversal, and wrote about it to Adrienne Katner, who has worked both with Edwards and with some of his antagonists. “It has gotten so muddled when it should not be muddled. And this is a recurring theme in discussions of lead,” I wrote. “What should be straightforward science is somehow open to so much interpretation.”
She responded, “It’s real. It happens. It’s life, and it sucks. And it’s also the oldest story in the world — scientist struggles to characterize reality as he sees it. Tries to speak what he perceives to be the truth. And in return gets the wrath of the entire world and becomes a social and scientific pariah: Galileo, Rachel Carson, Clair Cameron Patterson, and on and on.” 81
Adrienne’s analysis has helped me think about the long arc of such efforts to synchronize scientific inquiry with social action. I want to argue that, in the matter of lead, hard science and social justice do not necessarily contradict one another. But it’s complicated. Mielke’s measurements, like those by Edwards in Flint, tabulate current levels of toxicity. Harden’s appraisals, like those of the Flint activists, track and predict past and future levels of exploitation. Laws like the Clean Air and Water Acts, and science-based advocacy like that by Mielke and Edwards, have unquestionably been vital in cleaning up and restricting pollution. But neither the laws nor the scientific interventions can offer sufficient redress for decades of environmentally racist practices and neglect, nor for the resulting toxic burden that generations of poor people of color have inherited and will continue to inherit in their houses, schools, and neighborhoods. Terrifying as the lead epidemic is, the ramifications of environmental injustice extend well beyond this specific form of contamination. During a recent panel titled “Ensuring Climate Equity” (part of a training session sponsored by the Climate Reality Leadership Corps), the Reverend Leo Woodberry of South Carolina told his audience, “There would be no need for us to battle climate change if we had not closed our eyes when communities of color, and low-income communities, were being poisoned.” 82
The National Healthy Homes Conference returned to New Orleans in October, 2018. I went to a morning session to hear Howard Mielke speak. He showed slides of his maps. One listed health complications derived from lead. Another mapped life expectancy in New Orleans, showing a discrepancy of over 20 years between the poorest neighborhood and more affluent ones. Another tracked the sharp increase and then decline in child blood-lead levels over a 20-year span in the 1960s and ’70s, and how this correlated with an uptick in crime 20 years later — the implication being that a generation of babies with high lead levels grew up to act violently as teenagers and young adults.
One map tracked life expectancy in New Orleans, showing a discrepancy of over 20 years between the poorest neighborhood and more affluent ones.
Such a correlation between childhood lead exposure and crime is difficult to fully substantiate, though studies do exist. 83 But causation has always been a struggle for epidemiologists. Markowitz and Rosner, in their book Lead Wars: The Politics of Science and the Fate of America’s Children, consider the example of Cancer Alley, a stretch of the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge that is one of the most notoriously toxic regions in the nation. Epidemiologists cannot prove a causative link between abnormally high cancer rates and the prevalence of chemical plants along Cancer Alley. “Meanwhile,” David Rosner told me “people living there look up and see the birds are dying.” 84
In the aftermath of our son’s exposure, we sued our neighbor on State Street. We felt that we had been trespassed upon, as if a tree on her property had fallen and hit our child. The suit went to arbitration, and in the end we received a check. We hesitated about bringing the case to court, in part because we would have had to argue that our baby was harmed terribly. I don’t think he was; the issue for me was that he was harmed at all. Even a tiny bit of harm. A single IQ point. Why should he have to give away even a minute fraction of his intelligence so that someone could paint a house cheaply, or a paint- or gas-company executive could take home even more money than he might have otherwise? The lead glasses darken one’s view.
I don’t believe our baby was harmed terribly. The issue is that he was harmed at all. Even a tiny bit of harm. A single IQ point.
Yet, thinking about it now, I see how far my family has come from the events that galvanized my obsession. Our son is a lanky seven-year-old, bright-eyed, aware. The main legacy of the episode of his elevated blood-lead level is that his father is writing about it, won’t shut up about it, though I take care to avoid discussing it around the kids. But you never know what children imbibe. On a recent car ride, I watched my son touch the bottom of his shoe and then put his finger in his mouth. Before I could say anything, he remarked, with the immaculate timing of the deadpan provocateur, “Hmm. Tastes like lead.”
In the years since I first gazed upon it, I have made a habit of driving by the old Silver City Dump. When friends visit from out of town, I show it as one of the city’s notable sights. When I first saw it in 2017, it struck me as the ruin of a lost civilization, with the brick relics of Booker T. Washington high school stranded in weeds behind a construction-company fence. Then one day I turned onto South Roman Street in the soft, slanting light of late afternoon, and saw that the brick hulks were surrounded by half-finished glass structures. The architects had taken care to incorporate elements of the old building into its replacement, an accommodation that made the project seem all the more conscientious, contextual. Now, in the spring of 2019, the project is nearly complete. Shouldn’t one be heartened at the sight of a fancy new school being built in a disadvantaged neighborhood? I caught myself thinking that maybe all the concern about what lay beneath was overblown. I wanted to be rid of the lead glasses.
When I got home, I listened to a voicemail from Monique Harden. We had talked a few days earlier, and I had pressed her again about what she meant when she said, “It all starts with language.”
“A thought occurred to me after we spoke,” Monique said in the message. “The nature of a poison is that it’s not detectable. You can’t see it or smell it or hear it, but it’s there. The whole art of poisoning lies in going undetected. And language can be a way of making what is invisible visible. Or it can be a way of making something that is there disappear.”