Last year, the community of Flint, Michigan was thrust into the national spotlight for all the wrong reasons. Children were being diagnosed with lead poisoning at previously unheard of levels and the town’s water supply was later found to be the culprit. City officials, not long before, had switched the city’s water supply from the Detroit water system to a polluted and corrosive nearby river in order to save money. Though several of the city officials responsible have now been criminally charged for their role in the disaster, nearly two years have passed while residents of Flint remain without clean drinking water.
Though Flint is the most recent example of lead poisoning in the United States, a new analysis by Reuters has found that it is just the tip of the iceberg. The study found that nearly 3,000 communities throughout the country recorded incredibly high rates of lead poisoning, over a third of which were quadruple that of Flint at the height of the water crisis. Pockets of major urban centers like Baltimore and Philadelphia were the locales found to suffer the most from lead poisoning. In many of these communities lead poisoning has been a problem for generations. There, the rate of elevated lead tests has hovered between 40 to 50% for at least the past ten years. Other communities are more rural, like Warren, Pennsylvania. 36% of children living in Warren, a town of under 10,000 along the endangered Allegheny river, had elevated levels of lead in their blood.
The study used previously undisclosed data from the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and state health departments to arrive at its conclusions as both groups track poisoning rates among children in a variety of locations nationwide. Reuters reporters found that lead poisoning was so widespread it spanned across economic class and race, though poverty was often predicted a higher likelihood of lead exposure. Though the CDC officially estimated that 2.5% of children nationwide in the US suffer from lead poisoning, some say the number is likely far higher. Ultimately, the report strongly highlights the failure of government attempts to eliminate such high exposure to such a dangerous toxin. Dr. Helen Egger, chair of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at NYU Longone Medical Center’s Child Study Center, told Reuters that “Where lead poisoning remains common, many children will have developmental delays and start out behind all the rest.” For that reason, any child whose lead blood level is above 5 micrograms per deciliter warrant a “public health response” as the slightest elevation can result in a reduced IQ and stunted development.
This study raises the possibility that lead poisoning could be to blame, in part, for the rise in autism. Lead poisoning has already been pinned as a cause of autism as a 2014 study in Environmental Toxicology and Pharmacology found that lead and mercury can lead to autistic disorders. That same year, one in 68 children in the US were diagnosed with autism, a 30 percent increase in just two years. However, mainstream health news, such as WebMD, claim that the causes of autism remain “a mystery.” Children throughout the country have now been proven to have high levels of a heavy metal known to cause autism in their blood. The real explanation for the dramatic jump in autism cases is right in front of us, if only we would see it.
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