A Symposium on Exposure, Entanglement, and Endurance

Toxic: A Symposium on Exposure, Entanglement and Endurance at Yale March 3-4, 2016.

Lead Exposure and the Entanglements of State Protection and Neglect

Sara Smith, Yale University

In the 1970s, the United States introduced a series of federal and state regulations to reduce lead exposure. Health officials were concerned by the widespread distribution of lead in the environment and the toxic threat that it posed to the public. Lead was used extensively in a variety of industrial applications throughout the twentieth century. As a result, lead, a neurotoxin and probable carcinogen, became widely dispersed in natural and built environments, embedding itself into the air and soil, municipal water systems, and American homes.

Legislation banning the use of lead in gasoline and in residential paints sought to protect Americans from everyday, low-level lead exposure. Screening programs were developed to identify communities at high risk for lead poisoning by monitoring blood lead levels (BLLs) in children. Lead-contaminated paint, dust and soil were determined to be the most commonplace sources of lead exposure. The Residential Lead-Based Paint Hazard Reduction Act of 1992 spurred national prevention efforts to eliminate these health hazards from homes built before 1978.[1] By 1999, these protections had contributed to the significant decline of average blood lead levels in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) regards this feat as “one of the most significant health successes of the last half of the 20th century.”[2]

However, vast disparities still persist along racial and class lines. Between 2007 and 2010, black children had, on average, blood lead levels that were 38.5% higher than white children.[3] Moreover, children from low-income families living in older and dilapidated housing are more likely to have elevated BLLs than children from families who can afford the steep costs of lead paint abatement. Thus while the state has decreased the overall amount of lead in Americans’ blood over the past 40 years, it has done far less to actually alter the distribution of lead exposure. As the residents of Flint, Michigan, St. Joseph, Louisiana and other black-majority cities experiencing lead poisoning disasters know all too well, the history of lead exposure protections is entangled in the ongoing violence of state racism and neglect.

This abiding tension between state protection and neglect is a hallmark of American technocracy. State protections localize biology by safeguarding the blood and bodies of some citizens, while leaving politically and economically disenfranchised communities overexposed.[4] When a child in Flint drinks tap water, the lead entering her body binds itself to molecules, transporting the toxic byproducts of environmental racism and institutional violence into her brain, kidneys, liver and other vital organs. Seen in light of state efforts to protect Americans from lead, the very possibility of lead poisoning itself raises important questions about how the entanglement of molecules, chemical economies, bodies, juridical systems and infrastructure sustain the disproportionate exposure of vulnerable populations to toxins. This has led me to wonder about the different conceptualizations of “protection” (as distinct from “rights”). What are the types of relationships that notions of protection contain, inhibit, or foster? And how might ideas about protection augment theories of justice and modes of caring for human and non-human life?

[1] See TITLE X of the Housing and Community Development Act of 1992 (Public Law 102-550). Lead-based paints were banned for residential use in 1978. Most homes built before 1978 are assumed to have some amount of lead-based paint.

[2] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2005. Preventing Lead Poisoning in Young Children. Atlanta: CDC.

[3] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2013.“Blood Lead Levels in Children Aged 1–5 Years, United States, 1999–2010.” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 62 (13): 245-248.

[4] Here I refer to Margaret Lock’s notion of “local biology” and Adriana Petryna’s concept of “biological citizenship.”