A Historic Tragedy Repeats, and Again Repeats: Lead Poisoning

What is Mel Chin thinking today when he reads about the massive occurence of lead poisoning that began a year and half ago, and is just now being disclosed?

While we can all share in the distress that is afflicting the residents of Flint, Michigan where this latest devastating example of lead contamiation targeting childlren is occurring, Chin must also be frustrated, due to his long commitment to solving a form of contamination that afflicts the least defensive members of the population. Lead poisoning irreversibly thwarts children's life prospects. It is known to cause permanent problems, from aggression to stunted growth to reduced cognitive ability.

Flint's lead infiltration, that arrived via contaminated drinking waters, is described as "the biggest scandal in America, staggering in its scope and impact." Flint residents were served this toxic leaded river water even after dozens of people showed up to Flint meetings with brown gunk from their taps.  This false information was delivered by authorities at all levels of government. Evidently, the problem was caused when the government changed the source of the water from lake to river to save money. http://www.abladeofgrass.org/FIELDWORKS

In contrast to the Flint water emergency, the lead poisoning that inspired Chin’s ambitious Fundred Dollar Bill project is laced into the soils of New Orleans. This problem persists to this day, but it is not new. Current levels of lead contamination originated in lead paints which were used for many decades before they were finally banned in the 1970s. The problem remained unaddressed until Chin undertook the noble goal of materializing the intangible hope that no more children would be subjected to invisible lead toxins in New Orleans soils.

Regrettably, this problem has a long history, dating back to the collapse of ancient Rome. While northern barbarians and the spread of Christianity may have contributed to the fall of the empire, researchers now believe that blame can also be assigned to lead that entered the city’s drinking water via lead pipes, causing a “major public health issue“.

This danger was actually acknowledged in ancient Roman times. Vitruvius wrote a vivid and disturbing warning, “Water …conveyed in lead must be injurious, because from it white lead is obtained, and this is said to be injurious to the human system. Hence, if what is generated from it is pernicious, there can be no doubt that itself cannot be a wholesome body. This may be verified by observing the workers in lead, who are of a pallid colour; for in casting lead, the fumes from it fixing on the different members, and daily burning them, destroy the vigour of the blood; water should therefore on no account be conducted in leaden pipes if we are desirous that it should be wholesome.

As the current conditions in New Orleans and Flint testify, we have not heeded this 2,000 year old warning. It seems the desire to economize on cost continues to trump concern for the health of citizens.