One of the most prominent and stark examples of racial disparities in housing today is childhood lead poisoning. Although lead-based paint was primarily used in housing beginning in 1940, its effects are still present today.
Between 1940 and 1978, leaded paint was frequently used in homes—and was one of the most common and hazardous examples of exposure to lead. When absorbed into the body, lead is highly toxic for many organs and can result in neurological developmental issues. For children in particular, lead can negatively impact a child’s intellectual development, ability to pay attention, and academic performance (“Health Effects of Lead Exposure,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).
A popular choice for construction due to its malleability and corrosion-resistant properties, the use of lead-based paint in homes boomed for several decades. In the 1970s, as more research became available on the toxicity of lead, many cities began to prioritize campaigns against childhood lead poisoning (“This Lead is Killing Us,” National Library of Medicine).
While it is now commonly understood that no amount of exposure to lead is safe for children, this devastating crisis continues to exist today—and its effect is not equal. Lead poisoning is far more prevalent in predominantly Black communities across the country, leading to an array of health hazards and long-term neurological impacts.
The Roots of Lead Poisoning
Even fifty years after lead was officially banned from housing, Black communities continue to be disproportionately affected by childhood lead poisoning. The roots of this crisis can be traced to decades of environmental racism and housing discrimination, dating back to the Great Depression and the subsequent national housing crisis in 1929.
As the economy slowed to a stop during this time, Americans defaulted on their mortgages and new homes stopped being built. In an effort to reverse this impact, the government launched the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) in 1934 to oversee housing policies.
One distinct element of the new FHA’s policies was the separation of communities by occupation, income, race, and ethnicity. In what would later become known as “redlining,” this practice changed the trajectories of many Black families, pushing them toward unsafe, low-quality housing. Simultaneously, Black people were refused access to necessary mortgages to purchase safe, high-quality, and lead-free homes.
As Black families settled in underserved and overburdened neighborhoods, they faced a number of health hazards—including lead poisoning from homes that were built between 1940 and 1978 and had never been properly updated to ensure safety from lead.
Furthermore, while many white Americans were able to move from the cities to the suburbs after the Great Depression and seek safer, high-quality housing in well-funded communities, Black Americans were forced to stay in unsafe housing due to redlining and discriminatory housing and lending practices.
The Impact of Lead Poisoning in Low-Income and Minority Neighborhoods
Today, decades after racist housing policies were first implemented, rates of lead poisoning remain higher in low-income, minority neighborhoods compared to white, affluent neighborhoods (“The surprising link between postwar suburban development and today’s inner-city lead poisoning,” 2016). This is due to the fact that most low-income, minority neighborhoods still have housing stock built between 1940 and 1978 when lead-based paint was still legal.
While lead was deemed hazardous in 1978, leaded paint was never systematically removed from old buildings. The U.S. Department of Housing estimates that more than 3.6 million homes still contain lead hazards (Lead Hazards in U.S. Housing: The American Healthy Homes Survey II, HUD).
In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control estimate that 2.5 percent of all children between the age of 0 and six have elevated blood lead levels. Another study finds that Black children living below the poverty line are twice as likely to have elevated levels of lead compared to poor white or Hispanic children (Disparity in Risk Factor Severity for Early Childhood Blood Lead among Predominantly African-American Black Children, International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 2020).
While these numbers are concerning, the true impact of childhood lead poisoning is likely much greater. Most states do not test accurately for lead poisoning and many cases go unreported (“1.2 million children in the US have lead poisoning. We’re only treating half of them,” Vox).
St. Louis: A Microcosm into a Greater Crisis
In St. Louis, Black children in the City are 2.4 times more likely than white children to test positive for lead in their blood. Of all St. Louis children suffering from lead poisoning in 2016, 70 percent of them were Black, and four of the five wards with the highest childhood lead poisoning rates in 2017 were majority Black wards (Childhood Lead Poisoning in St. Louis City, Department of Health, 2018).
What is the root cause of the City’s staggering levels of childhood lead poisoning? One of the biggest contributing factors is the fact that 90 percent of the City’s homes were built before 1980—compared to 50 percent of homes in Missouri and nationwide (Childhood Lead Poisoning in St. Louis City, Department of Health, 2018). This high concentration of homes built pre-1980—when lead paint was still legal—continues to be a major factor in the lead poisoning crisis (Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention, CDC).
While the age of a home contributes to childhood lead poisoning, other factors are at play, particularly for rental units. If a landlord does not provide adequate building maintenance and upkeep, families may face a higher risk of lead poisoning and other health concerns (Childhood Lead Poisoning in St. Louis City, Department of Health, 2018).
Today, Black families continue to fight against housing inequities, making the dream of safe, high-quality homeownership difficult to achieve. The homeownership gap between white families and Black families continues to widen, marking the largest gap in a decade (Black Families Fall Further Behind on Homeownership, Pew, 2022).
Without access to high-quality, safe, and affordable housing, Black children will continually be exposed to hazardous living situations, including lead poisoning. To effectively solve this issue, we must confront the current crisis of affordable and safe housing. Far too many units occupied by low-income households are old properties in poor condition—making them far more likely to contain lead hazards. Safe, high-quality, and affordable housing for low-income communities is absolutely critical for future generations.
And while building new affordable housing is a key component, the sheer number of homes built between 1940 and 1978 also requires attention. Some studies find that local laws can be highly effective in addressing lead hazards through housing code enforcement and lead abatement ordinances.
In Rochester, for instance, a lead abatement ordinance requires regular inspections for lead paint hazards as part of the city’s certificate of occupancy process for rental properties (Collaborating for primary prevention: Rochester’s new lead law, Journal of Health Politics, Policy, and Law, 2008). As a result of the new ordinance, the city experienced a 68 percent decline in the number of children with elevated blood lead levels since the law went into effect in 2006 (Collaborating for primary prevention: Rochester’s new lead law, Journal of Health Politics, Policy, and Law, 2008).
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