(Photo credit: robert_r_gigliotti - Flickr CC)

(Photo credit: robert_r_gigliotti – Flickr CC)

Lead may seem like old news, but it’s not.

It is through the story of lead that we can tell the story about our misguided and backward process for assessing chemical safety. We once thought that lead in paint and gasoline was benign; we now know it’s highly toxic. The paint and automobile industry fought tooth and nail against lead restrictions, singing its safety from the hilltops. Once lead in gasoline was regulated, the amount of lead in the average American’s body drastically dropped within five years.

The story of lead is the story about the importance of public health prevention.

A new report out of Michigan sheds light on why investing in lead abatement makes financial sense. For many of us who support removing lead from homes and products, it’s a no brainer, right?! But when it comes to making the case to state and federal lawmakers, numbers speak louder than words.

The report, prepared by the University of Michigan’s Risk Science Center and the Michigan Network for Children’s Environmental Health, found that investing in lead abatement pays for itself within 3 to 6 years. And after that you see a net gain associated with removing lead. Let me explain.

Four primary impacts of lead exposure

The report looked at four primary areas that had costs associated with lead exposure. None of these costs account for the heartbreak, productivity losses for parents caring for children with lead exposure, and the many other real, yet hard to measure, impacts.

1- Increase in crime

The scientific literature shows a clear and longstanding connection between lead exposure, aggressive behavior, and crime. The report looked at the percentage of juvenile-related crime that can be linked to lead exposure. They conservatively estimated that in 2012, 10% of juvenile crimes in Michigan were associated with lead exposure, costing the state an annual $32 million in 2012.

2- Health care costs

The report analyzed health care costs associated with childhood lead exposure, including treatment of conditions such as ADHD. This was estimated to cost the state over $18 million a year.

3- Loss of productivity

Lead exposure is linked to loss of IQ and IQ has been clearly linked to “productivity.” What this means is the lower one’s IQ, the less earning potential that individual has over their life. This seems abstract until the numbers start to play themselves out over the overall economic health of a state or country. In Michigan alone, they projected a loss of wages upwards of $206 million for the lead-exposed population in the study.

4- Special education costs

Lower IQ often means more money spent on important special education programs. This was estimated at $2.5 million each year on special education costs just associated with childhood lead exposure. I recently wrote about a new study that found that lead exposure during pregnancy can negatively impact brain development.

What this means in total is that in 2012 alone, lead-related illness cost the state of Michigan $330 million, $145 million of which fell on taxpayers’ shoulders.

Why these numbers are conservative
  • The authors only looked at childhood lead exposure.
  • The authors only studied data from the state of Michigan.
  • Crime costs weren’t accounted for across someone’s life.
  • The study doesn’t include costs associated with exposures during pregnancy.
  • Special education costs didn’t include time off for parents to treat and provide specialized learning for their children.
  • The authors only measured children who were exposed to lead over 5 micrograms per deciliter, when impacts of lead exposure can be found at 2-5 micrograms per deciliter.
What this means

The study shows that we have a major opportunity to prevent illness, heartache, and money by addressing toxic legacy exposures. Think of the impacts of investing in lead abatement on a national scale. In addition, if this is the case for lead, what about other chemicals like toxic flame retardants, also linked to harming the brain?

A new study has found that exposure to toxic flame retardants could be as bad for IQ as lead exposure. There are endless opportunities for us to prevent harm to the developing brain; the question is, will we seize on these opportunities?

Where is lead still found in our homes?

Old lead paint is still the largest source of exposure to lead in the United States, making up approximately 60% of our household exposures.

Other sources of lead include: bathtubs, old toys (lead restrictions have helped reduce exposure in recent years), electronics, cosmetics, old pottery, soil, workplace exposures, old water pipes, and vinyl products.

What’s needed in Michigan (and all over)

In light of this report there are important and unique needs in Michigan in regards to addressing lead abatement. Rebecca Meuninck from the Ecology Center weighed in on an existing lead abatement program,

This program needs to be expanded, fully funded, and properly staffed. We call on the Governor to reconvene Michigan’s Lead Poisoning Prevention and Control Commission in order to develop a plan to end lead poisoning in Michigan,” said Meuninck.

Their recommendations from the Michigan’s Lead Poisoning Prevention and Control Commission include:

  • Reinvest in local public health department capacity in order to provide nursing and home inspection services in communities
  • Increase financial incentives for property owners to undertake lead hazard remediation
  • Enhance the Statewide Housing Registry
  • Fully fund the program
What can I do?