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Lead Poisoning Reveals Environmental Racism in the U.S.

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Ariana Hawk of Flint, Michigan, leads a chant during a protest over unsafe drinking water on the steps of the Michigan State Capitol on April 11, 2018 in Lansing, Michigan. Brittany Greeson / Getty Images

By Ben Knight

Reports that the new coronavirus is disproportionately killing African Americans in the United States are no surprise to the country's public health researchers. Numerous examples, from polluted water in Flint, Michigan, to parasites like hookworm in Alabama, have long shown that African Americans are more exposed to environmental dangers and ill-health than white Americans.

But a study into one of the most enduring of these threats — lead poisoning among children —provides a new measure of what many say is the toxic effect of systematic racism in the US.


There is no safe level of lead in the blood, which means even trace amounts can damage brain cells. But it is particularly dangerous for children in their pre-school years, when it can disrupt brain development. Overall, the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that around 2.5% of children aged between 0 and six in the country have an "elevated blood lead level".

Using publicly available data collected by the CDC from a representative sample of thousands of children aged one to five over an 11-year period, the study, published in February by the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, found that black children living below the poverty line are twice as likely to have elevated levels of lead in their blood than poor white or Hispanic children.

The CDC did not offer a comment on the new study, on the grounds that it was not involved in writing it.

The Danger of Being African American 

Statistically, the increased risk of lead poisoning associated with being black persists even when you correct for all other factors, from poverty to education levels to the presence of smokers in the home, to quality of housing.

"A lot of people had been saying: 'oh black children are just more at risk because they're more likely to be poor,'" said study co-author Deniz "Dersim" Yeter, an independent academic and undergraduate nursing student in Kansas. "Yeah, poverty's a problem, but it's nothing compared to being a black child in America."

Yeter was "astounded" by the results of their three-year analysis. "I knew it was bad, but I was expecting something like a marginal increase, something statistically significant, but ... not two to six times higher," they told DW. "That is obscene."

The study includes some surprising conclusions: The social condition of being African American is a bigger risk than living in an old house. In other words, black children living in buildings built between 1950-1977 are six times more likely to have elevated levels of lead in their blood than white children living in a building of that era.

That date is important. The US began putting restrictions on the lead content of paint in 1977. But leaded paint was never systematically removed from old buildings, and the US Department of Housing estimates that over 3.6 million homes housing children still contain lead hazards.

"It's so bad," Yeter said. "It deteriorates, it's little pieces of dust, you inhale it, kids touch stuff, touch their mouths, absorb it. [Before the 1950s] it used to be so bad that kids would go into seizures, go to the hospital and die, because there was so much lead in their blood."

The Consequences of 'Redlining'

The figures Yeter unearthed aren't surprising to community workers in areas where lead poisoning is just one of many health hazards that African Americans face.

"You just have look around you," said Kinzer Pointer, pastor and health campaigner in an overwhelmingly African-American community in Buffalo, New York, a city where most of the housing is older than 1978 and 40% of children tested in 2016 had an elevated blood lead level.

Buffalo is a prime example of the effects of "redlining" — the exclusion of minorities in the US from everything from insurance, to grocery stores — which offers a clue to how racism leads to poor health.

Pointer said that in the neighborhood he serves, the nearest supermarket selling fresh fruit and vegetables is over five miles away, and 60% of people don't own their own transport. "People live on fast food," he said.

Redlining also extends to mortgages and home ownership — the US census shows that only around 42% of African Americans own their homes, compared to 68% of white Americans.

Rahwa Ghirmatzion, director of People United for Sustainable Housing in Buffalo, explained that when renters receive a letter from health authorities warning their building is contaminated, "the expectation is for them to either move … or get their landlord to remediate the issue."

Confronting your landlord can be more fraught for black people: A 2012 study in the American Journal of Sociology showed that African Americans face disproportionately higher eviction rates than whites in the same income brackets. And moving voluntarily may mean breaking a lease and losing a deposit, making it still harder to afford a lead-free home.

The 'Color-Blind' Failure

David Rosner, co-author of the 2014 book Lead Wars, which traces the post-war history of lead poisoning, said racism has always been part of why lead poisoning has been tolerated.

As he explained, after the war, the Lead Industries Association even tried to blame black parents for letting their children eat paint: One 1956 letter showed the LIA arguing to government that lead poisoning was a problem of "educating the parents, but most of the cases are in Negro and Puerto Rican families, and how does one tackle that job?"

With their study, Yeter wants to show that hidden, structural racism can be just as dangerous, and that "color-blind" public health screening only exacerbates the problem.

Currently, blood lead screening is recommended (by organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics) when children live in old buildings or belong to a certain economic class. Yeter says not addressing race too, blinds authorities to the endemic discrimination.

"If you're ignoring black race as a leading risk factor — you're leaving so many black kids at far greater risk out of the local, state, and federal response." He added: "To act like there's no politics behind people being at risk, or what causes that, or how to solve that... it's political!"

Reposted with permission from Deutsche Welle.

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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.