It’s not surprising to learn that St. Joseph children have elevated levels of lead in their blood, even higher than what’s found among children in Flint, Michigan.
What’s surprising is that there’s not a tremendous outcry here in St. Joseph. Maybe Flint’s lead crisis was more dramatic because it included video footage of discolored water affecting an entire community.
Everyone needs to drink water, right? Well, everyone needs someplace to live, which leads us to the increased level of lead exposure in St. Joseph.
St. Joseph has an older housing stock and a higher rate of poverty than the state and national averages. Many of these low-income individuals and families find themselves in older houses that are more likely to contain lead paint. The Missouri Department of Health estimates that 65 percent of homes built before 1978 contain some lead paint.
In the past, lead was associated with wealth and opulence at a time when many of these houses were built. In the ’20s and ’30s, painters would carry a jar of powdered lead for customers who wanted to pay a little more for a more durable paint solution.
This makes lead exposure similar to cigarettes, another product that was once seen as a symbol of wealth and sophistication but is now linked to adverse health effects. Today, cigarette smoking disproportionately affects a lower-income population.
Cigarettes, at least, could be considered one person’s choice. A poor, single mother might find herself lacking in options on where to live. Once lead exposure is discovered, she might lack the financial means to replace all windows, though some have questioned if that’s always the best way to deal with lead in the home.
Either way, St. Joseph Mayor Bill McMurray correctly diagnoses lead, which is linked to developmental delay in children, as an issue meriting attention.
With hundreds of older homes, the city needs to demonstrate flexibility and creativity, in everything from making grant funds available for remediation to providing information on how to safely deal with lead paint. On occasion, it may be necessary to waive restrictions to certain types of renovations to historic homes.
The bright side is the first step in solving a problem is admitting its existence. The second step might be in identifying lead as more than a niche concern for a few isolated neighborhoods.
In a recent meeting with News-Press NOW editors, School Board President Seth Wright said where a child lives shouldn’t determine the quality of an education.
The same could be said about the chances that lead will enter a child’s bloodstream.