Tuesday, May 07, 2019


A couple of weeks ago, the word from Washington, D.C. was that Democratic congressional leadership and President Trump had agreed that spending $2 trillion on infrastructure was a swell idea.

Obviously, this was irrelevant because because a) which aspects of infrastructure would be addressed would need to be determined; b) the emphasis could be on aiding the public, as Democrats would prefer, or private profitability, as Trump would prefer; c) Trump agrees to whatever works for him at that moment, which is subject to change within minutes; and d) no one had asked the opinionof Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who promptly nixed the idea. 

Inaction is particularly tragic for the communities in which drinking the water might be considered "cruel and unusual punishment" if imposed on an individual on death row. One location is Lovely in Appalachia's Martin County, in which the drinking water is so severely compromised  that the "Kentucky House recently passed a resolution asking Gov. Matt Bevin (R) to declare a state of emergency and free up resources to fix the dilapidated system." The danger is not limited to Appalachia or to urban towns such as Flint, Michigan, however, as

The American Society of Civil Engineers gave the nation’s drinking-water system a D grade in its quadrennial report card. The network of more than 1 million miles of pipes includes many that are a century old and have a 75-year life expectancy. Across the country, 14 percent of treated water is lost through leaks, and here in Martin County, that figure has at times reached more than 70 percent. The American Water Works Association estimates that it will take $1 trillion to support demand over the next 25 years; in Martin County, repairs carry a price tag exceeding $10 million.

The link between lead exposure and crime has been well-documented by Kevin Drum who in a 2012 magazine article noted

atmospheric lead from gasoline tailpipes rose steadily after World War II, affecting babies born in the late 40s and beyond. The leading edge of this generation became teenagers in the late 60s and was more prone than previous generations to committing violent crime. Every year the population of teenagers with lead poisoning increased, and violent crime increased with it. This is why the 70s and 80s were eras in which crime skyrocketed.

In the early 70s the United States began to phase out leaded gasoline and newborns became steadily less lead poisoned. Like clockwork, as the leading edge of this generation became teenagers in the early 90s, the crime wave started to recede. By 2010, an entire generation of teenagers and young adults—the age group responsible for most crime—had grown up nearly lead free, and the violent crime rate had plummeted to half or less of its high point. This happened across the board: in big and small cities; among blacks and whites; in every state; in every city; and, as it turns out, in every other country that also phased out leaded gasoline.

It’s important to emphasize that the lead-crime hypothesis doesn’t claim that lead is solely responsible for crime. It primarily explains only one thing: the huge rise in crime of the 70s and 80s and the equally huge—and completely unexpected—decline in crime of the 90s and aughts.

As Drum reviews, there has been additional supporting evidence since then. Though the continued exposure to lead among children is especially troubling, it turns out that adults are not immune.  Now a 2018 study has

found that each year, as many as 412,000 American adults face a greater risk of dying from cardiovascular diseases because they were exposed to elevated levels of lead during their lifetimes. That’s 10 times more than previously thought, and comparable to the risk level from smoking, which kills more than 480,000 Americans a year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The study by Dr. Bruce Lanphear, a professor of health sciences at Simon Fraser University, and his colleagues was published this week in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet. The researchers reviewed death certificates for more than 14,000 people tested for lead exposure between 1988 and 1994. They found that after roughly 20 years, people with the highest levels of lead in their blood were 70 percent more likely to have died of cardiovascular disease, and twice as likely to have died of ischaemic heart disease, than their peers with lower lead levels. 

That suggests that – just as for children – there is “no apparent safe level” of lead exposure for adults, Lanphear said in an interview with The Guardian. He called the findings “troubling” but also “hopeful,” because they represent an opportunity to lower deaths from heart disease by reducing lead exposure of adults.

Of course, this story is very unlikely to have a happy ending.  It does not have the immediacy, the shock value, or the implications to national security of, for instance, nearly 3,000 Americans being murdered in attacks on September 11, 2001.   Nor does it grab the attention even of the (now nearly routine) episodes of mass shootings in American schools, which has resulted in exactly one (1) piece of national gun safety legislation, a ban onbump stocks.

By contrast, the impact of lead upon the human body is insidious, slow-acting, and difficult to dramatize, rendering unlikely a major investment in its removal. However, when in some future year there is a major effort to improve the nation's infrastructure, officials should speak to public officials and residents in places such as Martin County, Kentucky and Flint, Michigan. And Chicago. And Detroit. And Baltimore. And Milwaukee. And Newark, NJ.


This blog will be on (short) hiatus through Saturday, May 11. Please return late on the following day, and often.

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