When Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton faced off in Michigan last Sunday night, the nation’s eyes were once again on Flint, the majority-black city whose residents had been exposed for months to lead-laced tap water. The two candidates had both made Flint’s water crisis a crucial campaign cause, and the debate was a chance to showcase their outrage—both called for the resignation of Governor Rick Snyder—and perhaps win over a few Michigan voters before the Wednesday primary. But when resident LeeAnne Walters asked Clinton and Sanders whether they would remove lead service pipes from public water systems across the country, her question served as a sobering reminder that the threat goes well beyond Flint. The city’s toxic water crisis could happen again—and has happened before.
In February, The Nation sat down with the doctor who is largely responsible for our present-day knowledge of lead’s extreme toxicity. Philip Landrigan, a distinguished pediatrician and epidemiologist at Mount Sinai Hospital, first noticed the effects of lead on children in the late 1960s, when he was a pediatric resident at Boston Children’s Hospital. Many children came in complaining of headaches and dizziness. Some were comatose. But it wasn’t until working on a case for the Center for Disease Control in El Paso, Texas—which was home, at the time, to a large smelting plant—that he correlated small amounts of lead exposure in children with a loss of IQ points.
Landrigan’s studies in the early 1970s played a pivotal role in the government’s mandate to phase out lead in gasoline and to ban lead paint. In the past decade, an impressive series of studies building on Landrigan’s work have demonstrated that lead is toxic to children even at the lowest levels measurable in the bloodstream. Nonetheless, state officials ignored the findings of Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician at Hurley Children’s Hospital in Flint, when she alerted them that the proportion of children under 5 with elevated levels of lead in their blood had almost doubled since the switch to the Flint River.
Landrigan spoke to The Nation about how far we’ve come in understanding lead’s toxicity and how far we have to go in protecting communities.
Ava Kofman: When you published the results of your initial study, did people believe you?
Philip Landrigan: It depended on who you spoke to. People in the scientific community believed me. The lead industry rejected the findings out of hand, saying that they were foolish, that they were biased, and that they were the consequence of a whole series of other factors: socioeconomic status, race, inadequate parental education. They offered many different explanations to try to discount our findings. Another thing that the lead industry did was that they found paid experts to testify against us and write papers against us.
AK: As someone who’s been working on this issue for decades, what was your initial reaction when you heard about Flint and the water poisoning there?
PL: Well, I had a couple reactions. The first was this terrible sense of déjà vu, that it was “déjà vu all over again,” as somebody said a long time ago. [Laughs] The second was that it reminded me that as bad as Flint is, it’s hardly isolated. We still have a huge problem of lead poisoning in this country. The [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s] latest numbers indicate that more than 500,000 children [between the ages of 1 and 5] have elevated blood lead levels over today’s standards. There was a big survey of housing done a few years ago by a man named David Jacobs. It’s probably a little bit out of date, but not that much. He found that 38 million housing units in the United States contain lead, and in nearly two-thirds of those—so 24 million—the lead is in a deteriorating state, where it poses a hazard to children. So we still have a big problem.