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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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Cottongrass blows in the wind at the edge of Etivlik Lake, Alaska. Western Arctic National Parklands / Wikimedia Commons / CC by 2.0

By Tara Lohan

Warming temperatures on land and in the water are already forcing many species to seek out more hospitable environments. Atlantic mackerel are swimming farther north; mountain-dwelling pikas are moving upslope; some migratory birds are altering the timing of their flights.

Numerous studies have tracked these shifting ranges, looked at the importance of wildlife corridors to protect these migrations, and identified climate refugia where some species may find a safer climatic haven.

"There's a huge amount of scientific literature about where species will have to move as the climate warms," says U.C. Berkeley biogeographer Matthew Kling. "But there hasn't been much work in terms of actually thinking about how they're going to get there — at least not when it comes to wind-dispersed plants."

Kling and David Ackerly, professor and dean of the College of Natural Resources at U.C. Berkeley, have taken a stab at filling this knowledge gap. Their recent study, published in Nature Climate Change, looks at the vulnerability of wind-dispersed species to climate change.

It's an important field of research, because while a fish can more easily swim toward colder waters, a tree may find its wind-blown seeds landing in places and conditions where they're not adapted to grow.

Kling is careful to point out that the researchers weren't asking how climate change was going to change wind; other research suggests there likely won't be big shifts in global wind patterns.

Instead the study involved exploring those wind patterns — including direction, speed and variability — across the globe. The wind data was then integrated with data on climate variation to build models trying to predict vulnerability patterns showing where wind may either help or hinder biodiversity from responding to climate change.

One of the study's findings was that wind-dispersed or wind-pollinated trees in the tropics and on the windward sides of mountain ranges are more likely to be vulnerable, since the wind isn't likely to move those dispersers in the right direction for a climate-friendly environment.

The researchers also looked specifically at lodgepole pines, a species that's both wind-dispersed and wind-pollinated.

They found that populations of lodgepole pines that already grow along the warmer and drier edges of the species' current range could very well be under threat due to rising temperatures and related climate alterations.

"As temperature increases, we need to think about how the genes that are evolved to tolerate drought and heat are going to get to the portions of the species' range that are going to be getting drier and hotter," says Kling. "So that's what we were able to take a stab at predicting and estimating with these wind models — which populations are mostly likely to receive those beneficial genes in the future."

That's important, he says, because wind-dispersed species like pines, willows and poplars are often keystone species whole ecosystems depend upon — especially in temperate and boreal forests.

And there are even more plants that rely on pollen dispersal by wind.

"That's going to be important for moving genes from the warmer parts of a species' range to the cooler parts of the species' range," he says. "This is not just about species' ranges shifting, but also genetic changes within species."

Kling says this line of research is just beginning, and much more needs to be done to test these models in the field. But there could be important conservation-related benefits to that work.

"All these species and genes need to migrate long distances and we can be thinking more about habitat connectivity and the vulnerability of these systems," he says.

The more we learn, the more we may be able to do to help species adapt.

"The idea is that there will be some landscapes where the wind is likely to help these systems naturally adapt to climate change without much intervention, and other places where land managers might really need to intervene," he says. "That could involve using assisted migration or assisted gene flow to actually get in there, moving seeds or planting trees to help them keep up with rapid climate change."


Tara Lohan is deputy editor of The Revelator and has worked for more than a decade as a digital editor and environmental journalist focused on the intersections of energy, water and climate. Her work has been published by The Nation, American Prospect, High Country News, Grist, Pacific Standard and others. She is the editor of two books on the global water crisis. http://twitter.com/TaraLohan

Reposted with permission from The Revelator.

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An illustration depicts the extinct woolly rhino. Heinrich Harder / Wikimedia Commons

The last Ice Age eliminated some giant mammals, like the woolly rhino. Conventional thinking initially attributed their extinction to hunting. While overhunting may have contributed, a new study pinpointed a different reason for the woolly rhinos' extinction: climate change.

The last of the woolly rhinos went extinct in Siberia nearly 14,000 years ago, just when the Earth's climate began changing from its frozen conditions to something warmer, wetter and less favorable to the large land mammal. DNA tests conducted by scientists on 14 well-preserved rhinos point to rapid warming as the culprit, CNN reported.

"Humans are well known to alter their environment and so the assumption is that if it was a large animal it would have been useful to people as food and that must have caused its demise," says Edana Lord, a graduate student at the Center for Paleogenetics in Stockholm, Sweden, and co-first author of the paper, Smithsonian Magazine reported. "But our findings highlight the role of rapid climate change in the woolly rhino's extinction."

The study, published in Current Biology, notes that the rhino population stayed fairly consistent for tens of thousands of years until 18,500 years ago. That means that people and rhinos lived together in Northern Siberia for roughly 13,000 years before rhinos went extinct, Science News reported.

The findings are an ominous harbinger for large species during the current climate crisis. As EcoWatch reported, nearly 1,000 species are expected to go extinct within the next 100 years due to their inability to adapt to a rapidly changing climate. Tigers, eagles and rhinos are especially vulnerable.

The difference between now and the phenomenon 14,000 years ago is that human activity is directly responsible for the current climate crisis.

To figure out the cause of the woolly rhinos' extinction, scientists examined DNA from different rhinos across Siberia. The tissue, bone and hair samples allowed them to deduce the population size and diversity for tens of thousands of years prior to extinction, CNN reported.

Researchers spent years exploring the Siberian permafrost to find enough samples. Then they had to look for pristine genetic material, Smithsonian Magazine reported.

It turns out the wooly rhinos actually thrived as they lived alongside humans.

"It was initially thought that humans appeared in northeastern Siberia fourteen or fifteen thousand years ago, around when the woolly rhinoceros went extinct. But recently, there have been several discoveries of much older human occupation sites, the most famous of which is around thirty thousand years old," senior author Love Dalén, a professor of evolutionary genetics at the Center for Paleogenetics, said in a press release.

"This paper shows that woolly rhino coexisted with people for millennia without any significant impact on their population," Grant Zazula, a paleontologist for Canada's Yukon territory and Simon Fraser University who was not involved in the research, told Smithsonian Magazine. "Then all of a sudden the climate changed and they went extinct."