The parents of Flint, Mich., are the most recent and visible initiates into the world of lead poisoning, a lifelong and life-changing diagnosis.
It is a surprisingly large club. Half a million children are thought to have lead poisoning in the U.S., or 1 in 38. The sources of their poisoning are such things as wall paint before 1978 (when leaded paint was banned), soil contaminated by auto fumes before 1996 (when leaded gasoline was fully eliminated) or, as in Flint, lead that leached into the water supply from improperly treated pipes.
Whatever the origin, the lead makes its way into the bloodstream and then to the brain, where it causes permanent damage. The younger the child the more vulnerable the brain, but beyond that sweeping truth lies a broad swath of possible outcomes. Learning issues? Motor problems? Language delays? Lowered IQ? Tendency toward violence? All are possible. Nothing is certain.
“There are well-documented and convincing links between lead exposure to the young brain and behavior and learning issues later in life,” says Dr. Philip Landrigan, a pediatrician and dean for global health at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. Still unclear, however is how much lead and what effect in which children.
“Recently we are learning that lead is toxic at very low levels that we used to think were safe,” Landrigan says. “It is impossible to predict the exact effects in any one child,” meaning all parents can do is intervene early and never know for certain whether the struggles and stumbles in their child’s life are actually due to lead.
“That’s the hardest part,” says Christine McNeil of Laconia, N.H., mother of 18-month-old James Jr., who is at the start of the journey. Her son was diagnosed with high lead levels at his 1-year-old health check six months ago. “We’re doing all the things we can do, and I’m glad for something to do, but we have to wait and see what this means as he grows up.”
Wait — and turn to each other, in the way parents do when they carry the same burden. In that spirit, the McNeils are one of a cluster of families who have shared their lead-laden stories with Yahoo News. Together they illustrate what many Flint parents will face over the coming months, years and decades, long after the public outrage has ebbed and the spotlight has moved on.