Julián Castro: GET THE LEAD OUT!
Suddenly, America is swimming in news about lead, that fun neurotoxin that's poisoned our children since the early 20th century, all for the sake of shiny home paints and no-knock gasoline. Prosecutors in Michigan shocked residents of Flint by abruptly dropping all charges against officials whose actions resulted in that city's water crisis; Bloomberg Politics ran a major editorial on the slow-rolling public health crisis; and presidential candidate Julián Castro unveiled a brand-new policy proposal to finally clean up lead nationwide, and to help those victimized by nearly a century of neglect. So let's dive in, no HAZMAT suit necessary. But just to be on the safe side, please refrain from licking your screen, OK?
Rogered And Mean
The news from Flint may actually not be quite as horrifying as the headline "Prosecutors Drop Criminal Charges" at first sounds. Yes, people in Flint were justifiably astonished that, out of nowhere, prosecutors under the new Attorney General Dana Nessel, a Democrat, suddenly dropped charges Thursday against eight of 15 officials involved in the 2014 (and ongoing) water crisis. (Seven of the officials have plea deals, although judges haven't yet signed off on their guilty pleas.)
But the charges were dropped, those prosecutors say, because after reviewing the investigation performed under previous Republican AG Bill Schuette, the new folks concluded that
"all available evidence was not pursued," as Solicitor General Fadwa Hammoud and Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy said in a statement. Plus, the new team wasn't behind the arguments made in the case, and it appears they don't agree with them.
"[W]e cannot provide the citizens of Flint the investigation they rightly deserve by continuing to build on a flawed foundation," the statement went on. "Dismissing these cases allows us to move forward according to the non-negotiable requirements of a thorough, methodical, and ethical investigation."
The charges were dropped "without prejudice," meaning that they can be re-filed, which sounds like it may be a strong possibility -- and that additional charges and defendants may be added after further examination of the evidence. Gizmodo's Earther blog 'splainers in some detail why this delay may actually be more likely to result in a stronger prosecution, according to Wayne State law prof Peter Hanning:
The prosecutors were smart in dismissing the charges now versus after their cases went to trial because, at that point, they would've been unable to retry the case. Double jeopardy, baby. And Hanning can understand where they're coming from, entering a trial they didn't start.
"You have a new set of prosecutors on the case, and they may well have taken a look at the charges that were filed and said, 'We're not comfortable prosecuting it this way,'" Hanning told Earther. "Prosecutors take a certain ownership interest in their cases, and sometimes it's hard to prosecute someone else's case.
And so the people of Flint get to wait even longer for justice -- but here's hoping it will be more complete. One encouraging signal: Earlier this month, the new prosecution team got a warrant to search state phones used by former governor Rick Snyder and his office, so it's not out of the question that Snyder may actually face charges.
It's Worse Than We Were Le(a)d To Believe
Over at Bloomberg, columnist Noah Smith reminds us just how much lead America is still dealing with, even after leaded paint was banned in 1978, and unleaded gas was mandated for new cars in starting in 1974. (While use declined heavily in the 1980s, leaded gas for road vehicles wasn't entirely banned until 1996.) Goddamn, what a legacy:
[About] a third of all U.S. water systems use lead pipes. And until just a few years ago, plumbing fixtures containing as much as 8% lead could be sold as "lead-free." When those pipes become corroded, as they often do, people start consuming lead. And don't be misled by the photos of brownish-yellow water coming out of pipes in the famously lead-contaminated city of Flint, Michigan -- lead in drinking water is generally colorless, tasteless and odorless.
People are breathing and eating lead too. Many houses built before 1978 have lead paint in them, sometimes buried under more recent coats of paint. When the old lead paint chips, cracks, crumbles or gets eroded by water, lead particles are released, and gets swallowed and inhaled by kids. Even worse, the lead dust often gets into the soil, where it can get into garden plants, kids play in it, and it can even contaminate local water supplies.
And yes, all the science points to there being no "safe" level of lead exposure, although currently the level for "exposure" that's considered so unsafe that it triggers various interventions by public health authorities is 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter in the blood.
But a number of studies from around the world have shown that even lower levels can have major deleterious effects on brain function. So even though official levels of lead poisoning have gone down substantially in rich countries -- especially after the banning of leaded gasoline -- there are still probably a very large number of American children whose personalities and cognitive capacities are being altered.
And then there's the connection between lead exposure and crime. There's a lot of research; for just one example, consider a 2018 study finding links between blood lead levels and juvenile crime:
When blood lead falls by one microgram per decileter, the probability of a boy being sent to juvenile detention falls by a jaw-dropping 27% to 74%. The biggest effects were for poor African-American boys. Most of these students had blood-lead levels well below the official cutoff for lead poisoning, showing the destructive effects of even small amounts of the metal.
And then there's this astonishing 2018 study by economists Stephen Billings and Kevin Schnepel, which used an ingenious research design. They compared kids who had serious enough lead exposure to trigger interventions -- like nutritional help (to reduce absorption of lead in the brain), or abatement of lead in the home -- to kids with high blood lead levels who fell just short of qualifying for those interventions, and found that the kids who'd had the interventions had less behavioral trouble in school, and over time, were far less likely to get into trouble with the law. This chart just blows us away; the kids who got the interventions are noted in red.
That's simultaneously encouraging and terrifying. Look at the numbers for kids who don't even qualify for help -- so far.
Julián Castro Has A Plan For This
Seems like while we're rebuilding America with the Green New Deal, we should also be doing something about lead in our water and our homes and buildings, huh? As of this week, Julián Castro is the first Democrat running for president who has a comprehensive plan for getting help to the people and communities that have been harmed by lead. (Gasoline and paint! The FUCK were we thinking?) Now, to their credit, several other other candidates also include lead, and making water systems safe, as part of their climate, housing, and infrastructure plans, and virtually every candidate with a serious policy proposal is making environmental justice a centerpiece, but Castro is so far the only one to focus directly on lead. Good for him!
The centerpiece of Castro's plan is a commitment to get Congress to dedicate $5 billion a year, over a decade, to assess the areas that most need help to get lead out of water systems, housing, and soil. That's, like, a fraction of the Pentagon's accounting fuckups, for one comparison that comes to mind. Beyond that, the plan calls for a big boost in appropriations for the CDC's Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program, remediation of all lead risks in government buildings (especially public schools), and before any home or building built before 1978 can be sold, there'd have to be mandatory lead risk assessment and testing, and the property's lead status would have to be disclosed.
And for people affected by lead, Castro would expand lead testing of babies and very young children, so their needs can be addressed as early as possible -- and not incidentally, he's for universal healthcare, so children and families can actually get the checkups and care they need if a child does have lead exposure. In addition, Castro also wants to make the EPA about environmental protection again, and to strengthen its Office of Environmental Justice, which we can only assume is currently presided over by a MAGA chud posting memes about rolling coal while career staff keep their heads down.
Finally, Castro's plan calls for tweaking federal law on disaster aid so that federal funds can more easily be used to address human-caused disasters like the Flint water crisis, plus other emergencies that "involve a mix of natural causes and human intervention."
So wow, wouldn't it be great if we could have a government that actually solves some of the problems caused by our glorious industrial past, instead of merely wishing we could restore all the polluting industries that have devastated too many communities? Dear Crom, we might even chance a little bit of optimism!
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