A Community Response to Lead Poisoning

Students for Environmental Action President Sara Zufan interviews Grand Rounds speaker Ian von Lindern on his strategy to restore health to communities poisoned by lead

April 19, 2016

If you were born in the United States in 1970s or before, chances are you were exposed to unhealthy amounts of lead. Millennials, you’re in luck: the amount of lead in your body is likely considerably less. The regulations that made this shift possible came about in no small way due to the work of one man: Ian von Lindern.

One of the world’s foremost experts on lead remediation, von Lindern will deliver the 2016 Granville H. Sewell Distinguished Lecture in Environmental Health Sciences tomorrow as part of the Dean’s Grand Round Series on the Future of Public Health.

For three decades, von Lindern’s cleanup work around the Bunker Hill smelter in Idaho, site of the worst industrial lead poisoning in U.S. history, informed the development of the country’s blood lead level standards. He is the longest serving member of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee. Through his company TerraGraphics, he has worked on remediation both in the United States and increasingly overseas in places like Zamfara, Nigeria, where residual lead from a gold mining operation killed as many as four in ten children in affected villages.

Sara Zufan, president of Students for Environmental Action, spoke with von Lindern last week. What follows is an edited version of their exchange.

What’s the big picture on lead poisoning?

By today’s safety standards, every child in the United States was poisoned by lead up to and including the 1970s. At that time, the average kid had a blood lead level between 15 and 20 micrograms per deciliter—three or four times today’s standard. Back then we knew we had to clean up the environment to lower blood lead levels, particularly at Bunker Hill where the levels were an average of 70 for preschoolers. But every time we lowered blood lead levels, we continued to see health problems. This process continued to the point where it became clear there is no safe level of lead.

What’s the picture internationally? What are the standards outside of the U.S.?

Over the last 30 years, more stringent standards in the United States have driven the lead industry abroad. We don’t have much of a lead problem here anymore, yet there are more children poisoned by lead around the world than ever before. While many countries rely on World Health Organization standards, almost none of the middle- and low-income countries have any enforcement.

Most of the world’s lead is produced in China, mainly for car batteries to meet a growing demand for automobiles. These batteries have also become a way that poor people can recover lead, similar to what we see for e-waste. They can make a decent living, but not a healthy one.   

You work in several different types of communities. How do you ensure that a lead cleanup fits the context you’re working in, particularly in low-income countries?

The way we do cleanup is by using the capacity of the local communities. We don’t import sophisticated western techniques. In Nigeria, excavation was done with village laborers using shovels and grain sacks to remove contaminated soil. There was no way we could go in and fix these communities; we help these communities fix themselves. It’s their solution. They have the capacity with their own level of technology and economic resources.

In the later phases of cleanup in Nigeria, traditional budget estimates by the U.S. State Department and large NGOs were on the order of $50 million. We only needed $3.5 million, which was raised by the Nigerian government. The community did all the work and paid for it at an order of magnitude less cost than a western aid program would have spent. Had the $50 million project happened, it would have disrupted local economies and been a poor model for sustainability.

What kind of challenges do you see to making this remediation model work?

We’ve shown this approach is doable. We apply good science to get children’s blood lead levels down and do it within the economies and capabilities of those communities. We feel strongly that this can be done in any community—but only if governments invite it. There are economic forces that discourage them from doing anything. Any time we can introduce responsibility to mineral exploitation scenarios, we have the Chinese and to some extent the Russians, who will offer to extract those minerals the old fashioned way. However, the combination of good science and international media can strongly influence a government’s response.

What’s your take on the situation in Flint, Michigan?

The real tragedy of Flint is a failure of government to protect its poorest and most vulnerable people. What the State of Michigan did was against the law. You don’t serve water that is corrosive to people, regardless of lead. Officials there made the determination in the name of fiscal responsibility to let this community further deteriorate, and in the interim children were poisoned and trust was shattered.

In communities like Flint, of which there are hundreds, the infrastructure has been neglected to the point where not only is it dangerous to its citizens, but it preempts economic development and condemns those communities to poverty. In the United States and around the world, it’s poor people who are poisoned. We cannot address these problems without addressing the underlying poverty.