Getting the Lead Out

Students, toxins and environmental racism

by Erik Ness

(Rethinking Schools, Winter 2003)

Colleen Moore is tapping her finger. It’s her right index finger, and it travels up and down with the precision of a metronome.

She’s not nervous, impatient, or compulsive. She’s demonstrating the finger-tapping test, which illuminates the loss of function that occurs when someone has been poisoned by lead, mercury, or organophosphate pesticides.

“You look at the frequency at which people can tap for given periods of time,” explains Moore. “If you are toxified, you won’t be able to do that for very long.”

Moore is a developmental psychologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her new book, Silent Scourge: Children, Pollution and Why Scientists Disagree, catalogs a disturbing body of evidence showing that environmental pollution puts an increasing and measurable burden on the education of American children. The book focuses on how six pollutants—lead, mercury, PCBs, pesticides, noise, and radioactive and chemical wastes—hamper children’s ability to develop and learn.

Children exposed to these pollutants experience consequences both subtle and profound. “These types of pollution are usually silent and insidious,” she writes. “The effects … are revealed by carefully constructed psychological assessments of memory, attention, learning, motor skills, intelligence, personality, emotion, and other characteristics.”

Yet society does not control these substances with kids in mind. Many of today’s environmental regulations are based largely on studies involving adult biology and adult maladies. Existing research is overlooked and marginalized by the political climate of environmental science, while many critical questions go unanswered for lack of requisite funding and clout.

This raises another important societal question: How can politicians— including the Bush administration, which claims to care enough about the structure and performance of public education to dramatically rewrite education policy—ignore so much science that speaks to the very question of why some children can’t learn? Coal miners used to bring canaries into the mines because they were more sensitive than humans to the deadly methane gases found in coal seams. When the canaries died, it was time to get out of the mine.

“We’re looking at the wrong thing,” Moore admonishes. “Children are like canaries.”


Proving any connection between the wide range of potential pollutants and a wide range of educational difficulties is a nightmare for scientists, educators, and parents alike.

Lead poisoning provides perhaps the clearest evidence of individual harm. No reputable physician can dispute that even small amounts of lead can reduce intellectual functioning and diminish the capacity of a child to learn. Much of this damage is permanent. And while lead poisoning is in decline, the Centers for Disease Control estimates that some 300,000 children in the United States are poisoned by lead every year, mostly poor children of color.

Lead has long been known as a hazard. Between 1909 and 1934, 11 European nations and Cuba recognized lead’s danger and banned or restricted its use in interior paint. But in the United States, paint companies fought regulation, even touting the value of lead in advertising targeted at children.

Lead use became more widespread with its addition to gasoline. In 1925, even after public health doctors sounded the alarm and the surgeon general convened a commission to examine the public-health implications of leaded gasoline, the commission ruled in favor of industry on the dubious strength of a few poorly done studies showing no ill-effects. (The commission also recommended that Congress fund further study, but that never happened.) The case laid the basis for modern environmental policy, in which the burden of proof rests most heavily on the polluted, not the polluter. It took another five decades to amass the data necessary to change the status quo. Lead in gasoline was not phased out until the 1970s and 1980s; it remained in paint until 1978.

Lead was not a trivial additive to paint. Until the 1950s, as much as half, by weight, of a can of paint was lead. Coat by coat, room by room, house by house, America’s housing stock became increasingly toxic. As the housing stock has aged, outright decay and renovation keep the lead in circulation, through paint chips and lead-laden dust. It takes only a grain or two of lead a day to poison a child. Those aged six months to five years are most at risk, either by directly ingesting peeling paint, or through putting hands tainted with lead dust in their mouths.

There are no clear-cut symptoms for lead poisoning; only a blood test can unmask the demon. Lead inhibits a child’s body from absorbing iron, a basic building block of development in the bones and nervous system, including the brain. It also mimics calcium, and can be incorporated at critical junctions in neural transmitters that affect both brain function and sensory perception such as hearing or sight. A lead-damaged nervous system can lead to a variety of other problems including learning disabilities, ADHD, increased aggression, drug use, even a greater likelihood of criminal behavior. This may sound like a stereotypical rap sheet, but in fact all of these symptoms are linked to lead poisoning by a significant and growing body of science. [For more on the science of lead, follow the link at]

A great deal of the research on the effects of lead has focused on children’s scores on IQ tests. Moore says the tests can provide important data, but it’s possible to make the case against lead without them. For example, an important paper by University of Pittsburgh researcher Herbert Needleman relies on a variety of other tests: symbol-digit substitution, hand-eye coordination, finger tapping, pattern memory and comparison, vocabulary, serial-digit learning, mood scales, and more. Still, in the world of lead poisoning research, the IQ test remains important: It allows scientists to evaluate impacts on a larger scale, and it’s part of the regulatory and policy framework of local, state, and federal governments. For example, though a reduction of 4-5 IQ points is not disastrous in a single poisoned child, that IQ reduction in a population will increase by 50 percent the number of children who qualify for special education.

“If you have a toxin that creates a difference in IQ scores, then it’s done something,” says Moore. “Exactly what, and what the biological processes are is another question, but it has done something. Everyone agrees on that.”


Under the cover of these individual tragedies lies a more disturbing idea: Lead poisoning in enough children can lead to the symptoms of a failing school. “[A] host of social problems, including ‘failing schools,’ represent symptoms of lead ingestion by children during their first three years of life,” argues Mike Martin of the Arizona School Boards Association. Martin spent a year and a half digging through the public health and education literature trying to examine the question in more detail. He found that the idea that lead poisoning could be an important component of educational dysfunction has been floating around for some time. More than 10 years ago, Newsweek put lead on its cover and quoted Bailus Walker, dean of public health at the University of Oklahoma and former commissioner of public health in Massachusetts: “The education community has not really understood the dimensions of this because we don’t see kids falling over and dying of lead poisoning in the classroom. But there’s a very large number of kids who find it difficult to do analytical work or [even] line up in the cafeteria because their brains are laden with lead.”

Eight years later, in 1999, Jacquelyne Faye Jackson, a research associate at the Institute of Human Development at the University of California, Berkeley was compelled to ask: “Where are the voices of educators in this policy debate? After all, it is educators who will face the formidable challenge of trying to prepare future generations of African-American and other minority children for productive life in the 21st century after society has allowed those children to suffer ongoing lead exposure at levels known to undermine their educational potential.”

Patti Peplinski, a special education teacher at the Broad Street Academy in Milwaukee, recalls her earlier ignorance when it comes to lead. As a young teacher, she would pass out pamphlets to parents about lead poisoning and consider her job done. “I started teaching around the same time that the lead poisoning laws were changing,” she says. Like many people, she thought the problem had been solved. “I didn’t realize there was anything that I could personally do about it.”

Then one day a child came to her who had been diagnosed with a pervasive developmental disorder. The case didn’t make sense to her: He had a lot of skills, including knowing his ABCs, but at age two he had changed. She began to do some research, then ordered a lead test. The next day, the boy was admitted to the hospital with blood lead levels six times the current standard.

“The dots began to connect themselves,” says Peplinski, as she realized that a whole lot more of her students were probably suffering the effects of lead poisoning on one level or another. If that wasn’t enough, another five year old showed up one day, also lead poisoned. What hurt the most was that she had met the boy when he was an infant, on a home visit for the boy’s brother, who also showed some symptoms of lead poisoning. She had talked to the mother, but that clearly had not been sufficient. “Things could have been different for that child,” she laments.

Peplinski has become a hard-core lead activist, working with parents, public health professionals, and even writing a K-12 curriculum on lead poisoning prevention. She keeps one folder filled with news clippings about failing schools and falling test scores.

“I don’t blame everything on lead, but if you take lead in combination with other factors, lead is the one thing we can control,” she says. “We can’t control the poverty. We can’t control if there are drugs and alcohol. We can’t control a lot of the other environmental issues. Lead poisoning is something we can control.”

While knowledgeable professionals feel certain that lead poisoning is a factor in many failing schools, the proof is, as yet, inconclusive. Lyke Thompson, Director of the Center for Urban Studies at Wayne State University in Detroit, is working to make the connection. Using health department data from the state of Michigan, he was able to match known cases of lead poisoning with school districts. Then he found an association between the number of lead poisoned kids and a school district’s scores on state achievement tests.

He then focused on elementary schools in Grand Rapids, Mich., and matched the afflicted kids to their schools. Again there was an association. “There is a tendency for those places where there are large quantities of lead poisoned kids to also be places where schools are being found deficient,” says Thompson.

“There can’t be any question from the medical literature anymore,” argues Thompson. “Whichever variable you want to look at, lead leads to a decline. It leads to a decline in intelligence, it leads to a decline in achievement, [and] it leads to an increase in misbehavior. Does that then surface at an aggregate level? Does it affect overall school district performance? Is it part and parcel of the failing schools phenomenon? What I’m finding in preliminary statistical work is that it is.” Preliminary, he stresses—more research on a wider scale is needed.


Rhonda Anderson, an environmental justice organizer for the Sierra Club in Detroit is graphic about the burden on the children of her community. “It’s standing over us like a pit bull chomped down on us, and we are just having to drag it along with us.”

Detroit is particularly hard hit. Its lead problem catapulted to a higher level of scrutiny last winter when the Detroit Free Press rolled out the results of a seven-month investigation. While the lead paint problem was significant, with remediation largely ineffective, the newspaper unearthed another source of lead. The paper commissioned its own soil tests around a defunct lead smelter and found 10 locations with lead levels exceeding the Environmental Protection Agency’s danger level of 400 parts per million. The EPA knew about the soil contamination but did nothing. The paper concluded that the “nation’s lead strategy is often snarled in bureaucracy and too limited in its scope.”

According to a report from Environmental Health Perspectives:

Detroit’s citizens are heavily hit with the consequences of pollution and poor environmental policies. For example, one out of three Detroit children under age five who are tested have lead poisoning (defined by Centers for Disease Control guidelines as 10 micrograms/deciliter). This rate is four times the national average—and only an estimated 10 percent of children in the area have been tested. Rates of asthma in Detroit are among the highest of affected urban areas in the country: A 1996 study published in Pediatrics found that, of 380 children in two Detroit schools, 14 percent had active, diagnosed asthma.

Lead poisoning can afflict anybody, but lead exposure varies dramatically along income, racial, and ethnic divides.

“In the 1980s African Americans under the age of five had seven times the chance of high lead exposure as middle-class or upper-income whites. Now that number is 16 times,” reports Moore. “Everybody’s exposure is lower on average, but where we haven’t cleaned it up is in the inner-city and sub-standard housing.” Chicago, Providence, St. Louis, Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York—any area with housing stock built before 1978—is susceptible to lead poisoning.

It’s environmental racism, pure and simple, says Anderson. “The problems that we’re presently experiencing in the city of Detroit in regards to test scores, dropout rates, and even violence, I believe have a lot to do with the degree of not only lead poisoning, but other environmental issues as well,” she says. “Our children are up against so much it’s unbelievable. It’s unfair. It’s a crime. We should all be very, very embarrassed.”

Donele Wilkins, executive director of Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice, works full time just to put these inequities on the table. She believes lead poisoning is one of the biggest problems in the Detroit School system. “For a long time, special education teachers have known there’s been a problem. When we interface, the light bulbs come on, and they begin to think, ‘I’ll bet our kids are lead poisoned. They have these behavioral problems, they can’t sit still in the classroom, and their attention spans are really short. They just can’t learn. It has to be more than not getting the proper support in their homes. There has to be something else going on.’ Because they see it in the classroom, they’re on the front lines.”

“If you do not bring in this question of exposure to certain contaminants like lead when you’re talking about school reform, you’ll never resolve the problem,” she says. “You’ve got to remove the hazard. This is a preventable disease.”

Dr. Sandra Screen, director of psychological assessment for the Detroit Public School system, is more equivocal about the larger impacts of lead. Her co-workers are very aware of the problem, she says. “We do have an increase in children that have significant cognitive deficits, as opposed to the past 15 years. We have more children that need specialized attention. We need more teachers, when there is already a shortage of teachers.” But where those deficits come from is hard to say. “There are a myriad of problems that children encounter before entering school,” she says, and even if there is lead poisoning, a simple test does not address the problem.

Nationwide from 1988 to 1999 special education enrollments grew 33 percent while general enrollments climbed 15 percent. The increasing role and cost of special education should give an incentive to policy makers to find out why special education is growing so quickly and why minority students are over-represented. Many factors are involved, from racial stereotyping, to language barriers, to standardized testing. But a National Academy of Sciences committee charged with investigating why more minorities end up in special education pointed to lead as part of the problem. “We know that minority children are disproportionately poor, and poverty is associated with higher rates of exposure to harmful toxins, including lead, alcohol, and tobacco in early stages of development.”

“Environmental pollution is a double-edged issue,” says Claire Barnett of the Healthy Schools Network. “On one side of the edge, they’ve got skyrocketing enrollments of kids who are already adversely impacted. They’re arriving in pre-K programs, special education, or in regular kindergarten with learning disabilities, autism, behavioral disorders, asthma—all of which are linked to environmental pollutants, some of them actually caused by environmental pollutants.”

“At the same time,” Barnett continues, “all of those pollutants which are known causes or triggers are also present in schools. Schools have plenty of lead to go around. They also have plenty of asthma triggers to go around.”


Sometime in 2004 a scientific advisory panel will consider a proposal to further lower exposure limits to lead. The ruling should be controversial, in part because the Bush Administration insisted on adding a doctor who has provided expert testimony on behalf of paint companies fighting a lead poisoning lawsuit in Connecticut.

Colleen Moore argues the real decision is not scientific but moral: “Protecting children from pollution is plainly an ethical choice,” she says. “Officials talk as if science will give us an exact answer to problems. But science always entails some uncertainty, and it’s very important to realize that in environmental areas because it impacts the policy,” she explains. “Science doesn’t make policy. Science can’t make policy. The best science should be a part of policy. But the question of how much exposure to any pollutant or negative environmental influence is too much is plainly an ethical question.”

Milwaukee teacher Patti Peplinski believes teachers can make a difference by using the same approach that they use for fire prevention: talk about it in the classroom. [See “Teaching About Toxins,” page 22.] “It’s common knowledge now to stop, drop, and roll. I want lead poisoning prevention to be the same way.” And she has helped write a K-12 curriculum to do just that. (See sidebar, page 20.) “Teach younger kids to stay away from peeling paint, and wash your hands before you eat. Teach older kids why it’s dangerous, what to look out for.” She proudly relates the story of seeing a former student who told her that he still remembered her lesson about staying away from peeling paint.

Martin, of the Arizona School Boards Association, acknowledges that public schools—especially so-called failing schools—are fighting for their lives. “Politicians have indulged in a frenzy of school bashing over the past few years,” he says. “I fear that the current social and educational climates are too preoccupied with intimidating individual students and teachers to give much attention to something that implicates societal responsibility for failing schools.” He hopes the new science of lead’s effect on the brain will force policy makers to “re-examine some social issues through a new prism.”

“The upshot is that we may be able to make more impact on improving school performance through improving housing than through any of these administrative reorganizations that are supposed to make schools better,” says Lyke Thompson. “We don’t know whether those things work. But I can say, tentatively, there is an association between lead poisoning and school performance.”

“We know enough about lead poisoning from the medical literature alone that we should be taking action to deal with lead poisoning so that all the children in our country have the full chance to succeed,” says Thompson. “In Michigan, estimates are that it would take $10 billion to deal with the old lead paint in our housing. We’re spending $87 billion in Iraq instead. The priorities need to be reconsidered, substantially.”


Copyright 2005 by Erik Ness

Email this to someoneShare on LinkedInShare on RedditShare on TumblrTweet about this on TwitterShare on Facebook

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *