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Despite Decades of Warnings, Lead Still Poisons Kids in the Midwest

The water crisis in Flint, Mich., shone a light on the devastating effects of lead. Scientists' conclusion there is no safe level of lead and President Joe Biden's pledge to remove the estimated 10 million water service lines underground add momentum toward finally eradicating the metal.

Bruce Lanphear, a longtime lead researcher and professor at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, said the U.S. has typically made progress on lead when crises or new research galvanized public support. But regulations and action to clean up lead contamination often depend on what is considered feasible.

Cwiertny noted the issue of lead poisoning through drinking water had risen in prominence following crises.

"The concern I have is people — through the rhetoric of politicians talking about what great progress we're making by getting $15 billion here and allocating recovery funds there to address this — will think it's a problem that gets solved and there won't be any accountability," Cwiertny said.

By the time the U.S. started phasing lead out of gasoline, banned it in residential paint in the 1970s and outlawed lead water pipes in 1986, scientists had been warning of the dangers of lead for decades.

In 1925, as use of lead in gasoline gained momentum, Yandell Henderson, a professor at Yale University, told a gathering of engineers that it would slowly poison vast numbers of Americans.

"He said that if a man had his choice between the two diseases, he would choose tuberculosis rather than lead poisoning," the New York Times wrote at the time.

A concerted effort by the lead industry staved off regulations, Lanphear said.

Lanphear said he was invited to speak to Omaha residents 20 years ago about lead poisoning. At the end, he took questions.

"There was this big burly guy with a flannel shirt, beard (who) got up — trucker's hat — and he got teary and he said, 'I worked at the smelter for years, and every morning, I was ordered to reverse the flow and discharge all the contaminants that they had scrubbed out during the day.'"

There are stories that "just break your heart" showing how flawed regulation was, Lanphear said, and how "irresponsible" the industry was.

Read entire article at NPR