Halloween disappointed me; I didn’t see any kids dressed up as lead-poisoned blood. They missed a real opportunity too, because high blood-lead levels scare me more than witches or zombies.
Nonetheless, this week I was delighted to learn about a new organization dedicated to raising awareness of the city’s lead problem and finding solutions to it. The organization is called the New Orleans Lead Safe Program, and its goal is ending childhood lead poisoning in the city.
After reading local author Thomas Beller’s “wish” that children with lead poisoning would “bleed out their eyes” to create a public stir, New Orleans Lead Safe Program made packages of gumballs that looked like blood-speckled eyes. Attached to the gruesome candy was this note: “Does my child have to bleed from the eyeballs before we make New Orleans a Lead Safe City?”
I’m not going to repeat everything I’ve already written about lead poisoning. But the more I learn about lead’s correlation to low test scores and high crime, the more I’m convinced that lead education and prevention should be an immediate priority for the city.
We already know that lead is a public health hazard, especially for children. We also know that lead permanently damages a child’s cognitive development and impulse control. However, none of that has spurred us to mass action.
It’s no great leap to think that studies linking lead levels to educational performance and crime rates have validity. Crime and education are perennial issues in New Orleans. Yet lead never makes it into the ongoing conversations about crime and education, even though most of the homes here contain dangerous lead levels.
I’m optimistic that this organization finally can inject lead safety into the conversation about these issues. The group’s leaders seem to have a deep understanding of the lead problem, having met with Howard Mielke, a Tulane professor of environmental toxicology and a leader in the field of lead research.
And beyond the clever bloody gumballs campaign, New Orleans Lead Safe Program leaders such as Gail Fendley (email@example.com) plan to work on multiple fronts to create the momentum needed to make lead safety a citywide priority. They intend to take their case to community leaders, clergy, physicians, housing specialists, academics, business leaders and local officeholders.
And they will present a very strong case. After all, who wouldn’t want to buy in to a public health campaign that could improve education, crime and the environment?
Most importantly, the organization recognizes the need to offer solutions as well as raise awareness. Lead is an insidious, complex problem, affecting neighborhoods from Gert Town to the Garden District.
Parents need to know that they can take action to prevent further exposure. Widespread testing — on blood levels, soil samples and chipped house paint — is a first step. Next, the city needs to monitor demolitions and renovations and rigorously enforce paint-sanding laws. Landlords — like the one who lied to Beller about the content of the paint being sanded off her property and coating the neighborhood — need to spend time in jail if they break the law.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu has said that he wants to tackle all of New Orleans’ big problems at once. He should be receptive to the idea of an aggressive lead safety initiative, one that addresses several problems at once and could result in compounded economic payoffs for the city.