“Poisoned,” the powerful investigative piece by the Tampa Bay Times, is a devastating reminder that children are being harmed by invisible environmental dangers. Added to the already disturbing list of food and water contaminants, air pollutants and household chemicals, we have convincing evidence that Tampa’s children are being unsafely exposed to lead.
Since the 2000s, 16 children have been diagnosed with elevated blood lead levels as a result of a parent working at the Gopher Resource plant. This is a public health threat that requires urgent intervention on the part of local, state and federal officials, including an investigation by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
Lead is a neurotoxin that causes negative and lifelong health, educational and achievement effects. As pediatricians, we have seen first-hand the profound effects of lead exposure during infancy and early childhood. Young children are particularly prone to lead exposure because of developmentally appropriate mouthing behaviors (for instance, finger sucking) and better absorption into the body. They are highly vulnerable to the harmful effects because their brains are rapidly developing. Tragically, lead exposure can occur as early as pregnancy, when stored lead is released into the blood and can accumulate in the growing fetus.
The American Academy of Pediatrics and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have repeatedly stated that there is no safe level of lead in children. While current guidelines use a threshold of 5 micrograms per deciliter of blood to identify an elevation, evidence suggests that blood lead levels below 5 are linked with decreased IQ, difficulty with attention and behavioral issues. It is predicted that 6-year-old children in the United States have collectively lost 23 million IQ points due to lead exposure. Experts estimate that 1 out of every 5 cases of pediatric attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is related to lead.
Pediatric lead exposure — and the harmful consequences of lead toxicity — is 100 percent preventable. Since the 1970s, the United States has used legislation and regulation to restrict lead in gasoline, paint, cans and water. There are also occupational exposure limits, which are meant to protect workers and secondarily shield children. As we learned from the “Poisoned” series, when hazards in the workplace are ignored, it is not only the employees who are harmed but also the smallest and most vulnerable members of our community.
The memorable lead crises in Flint, Mich., and Newark, N.J., together with what we now know is happening at Gopher Resource, serve as reminders that we are not doing enough to protect children from the enduring negative consequences of early life toxic exposures. What these three health tragedies have in common is environmental injustice. Economically disadvantaged groups and communities of color are disproportionately affected by environmental hazards. The examples in Flint, Newark and Tampa demonstrate that poorer and minority communities continue to be unfairly exposed to toxins. This needs to change.
While lead can accumulate rapidly in the body, it is eliminated frustratingly slowly. This is the reason why primary prevention — stopping exposure before it happens — is paramount. There needs to be an environmental investigation of soil samples within an appropriate radius around the plant. Officials should check nearby day cares and schools for their lead levels. A simple blood test can identify children who have already been exposed to lead. Routine testing is recommended for children ages 1 to 2 years old who: live in housing constructed before 1978, are eligible for Medicaid or Women, Infants and Children (WIC) benefits, are siblings of lead-affected children or live in Zip codes that are classified as higher risk by local or state public health departments.
If you are concerned that your child may have been exposed to lead, speak with your pediatrician or health care provider to receive the help you deserve. If you are a health care professional and you are outraged by this environmental injustice, join us at Florida Clinicians for Climate Action to advocate for equitable solutions.
Pediatricians Sarah Glick and Barbara Nabrit-Stephens are both members of Florida Clinicians for Climate Action. Dr. Nabrit-Stephens is a member of the Bay Area Medical Association, an affiliate of the National Medical Association.