“Flint still doesn’t have clean water!”

We’ve probably all heard this phrase before, and it continues to ring true today.  In 2014, the City of Flint, MI, found itself in an unenviable crisis—its water had become poisoned with lead after the city switched its water source and political leaders failed to heed warnings from experts that the new water source would corrode the city’s lead pipes unless the water was treated with anti-corrosion chemicals.  Flint still has not fully recovered from this event, and as a result the city has become somewhat of a poster child for socioeconomic inequality in America (Flint is a majority black post-industrial city with low average incomes, and many people believe the water crisis would have been solved years ago had it happened in a city with whiter and wealthier demographics).  Flint also brought the topic of lead poisoning to the forefront of the national conversation for a long time, and for good reason.  Lead poisoning is one of the largest environmental health and safety concerns, and unfortunately the threat of lead poisoning extends far beyond Flint, MI.

St. Louis’ Quiet Lead Crisis

Like Flint, St. Louis is an old, formerly industrial city, and much of our infrastructure and housing stock dates from a time when lead was commonly used.  To be clear, the City of St. Louis currently does not have a problem with lead-contaminated drinking water.  Our water source is not corrosive, and the water is also treated out of precaution to prevent any possibility of corrosion.  Here in STL, the main problem is lead-based paint in housing stock built before 1978.  Most of us don’t ever think about the paint in our homes and how it can cause health problems, but paint contributes significantly to lead poisoning in St. Louis.  In 2014, the same year as the start of the Flint water crisis, 9.2% of children tested showed elevated blood-lead levels (BLLs), defined as being higher than 5 micrograms per deciliter of blood, and an additional 17.9% had levels between 3 and 5 micrograms per deciliter, which is still high enough to cause irreversible health problems.  In some neighborhoods of the city, more than 20% of children tested had elevated BLLs.  Compare these statistics to Flint, where elevated BLLs in children peaked at 5%, and it is clear that lead exposure is a huge problem in St. Louis.  Unfortunately, and perhaps unsurprisingly, St. Louis’ black children are more than twice as likely to be affected by lead poisoning than white children.  The graphic below explains this more:

lead in stl

Lead Risks in Forest Park Southeast

A couple years ago, Vox published an article with an analysis of lead exposure risks in every census tract nationwide.  They also made a neat interactive map that allows you to search your address to find the lead exposure risk where you live.  Unfortunately, the data does not offer good news for FPSE.  Census tracts 1181 and 1186, which encompass virtually all of FPSE, both have a lead exposure risk of 10 (the highest possible).  This is almost certainly due to the age of housing stock and other buildings in the area.  FPSE is home to many historic buildings, and while we are certainly proud to have such beautiful architecture, some may be silently harming us.

If your home was built before 1978 (when lead paint was banned), you and your family may be at risk for lead exposure from the paint on your walls.  Over time, paint chips and dust particles inevitably fall off onto surfaces and get into the air, creating a risk for lead exposure, especially in children.  Adults can also be affected by lead exposure as well, although the risk is more urgent in young children.  Simply repainting the walls with new lead-free paint does not fully eliminate the risk.  The best way to eliminate lead exposure risks in your home is to get it inspected and remediated, if needed.

Lead Inspection and Remediation Resources

So what can you do about possible lead exposure?  There are a number of resources in St. Louis that can be used.  Here is a list of good options with links:

  1. City of St. Louis Lead Inspection and Hazard Control Division
    • This city department offers inspections for lead in residential properties.
    • Inspections are free of charge in households where children under six and/or pregnant women reside.
    • If a lead hazard is found, building owners can apply for financial assistance.
  2. Child Lead Testing Services
    • The city will test children under the age of 6 for lead, free of charge.
    • To qualify for free testing, parents must be residents of St. Louis City.
  3. EPA Certified Lead Abatement Contractor Search
    • The EPA has a tool that allows you to search for contractors that are certified for both lead testing and lead hazard elimination.
  4. Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services—List of certified contractors
    • List of companies certified by the state, includes services offered by each company and contact info
  5. Buy a home lead testing kit
    • The link above will take you to lead testing kits available on Amazon, but home testing kits can also be found at stores like Home Depot, Lowes, Ace Hardware, Menards, and other home improvement stores (just do a Google search and you’ll find plenty of options).
    • Home testing kits can cost as little as $10
  6. Ask your landlord
    • If you rent housing built before 1978, your landlord is required by federal law to disclose the presence of known lead-based paint and/or lead-based paint hazards in the dwelling.  This should have been disclosed before you moved in (possibly in your lease contract), but your landlord should be able to provide this information upon request if you are unsure.
Don’t Put This Off!

Lead presents a hazard no matter how old you are or how healthy you think you are.  Young children and pregnant women are of especially high concern when it comes to lead exposure.  It’s best to find out if your household is at risk for lead exposure and take action quickly if possible, since lead poisoning can cause severe, irreversible brain damage and development problems if not addressed quickly.  There is also a possible link between lead exposure and violent crime based on some studies, although the research is not fully conclusive on this.  Nonetheless, lead is widely known to be a toxic substance, and exposure should be taken seriously.