A brief history of the lead poisoning epidemic in St. Louis and a question about its future
AS the 2016 school year began, hundreds of students in St. Louis Public Schools (SLPS) walked in to find their drinking fountains wrapped in yellow tape and rows of plastic water bottles stacked in their classrooms. The unexpected water shutdown came after a district-wide test found high levels of lead contaminating the water in public schools across the city. The tests were carried out in response to the ongoing crisis in Flint, Michigan, where residents have been without clean water for more than two years. Out of 74 buildings tested in the SLPS district, 82 water sources were found to have dangerously high levels of lead.
As a public health measure, if a lead test finds 15 parts per billion, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends that action be taken by municipalities and homeowners to avoid major health risks. In Flint, 90 percent of homes tested at 27 ppb or less. In St. Louis, 16 public schools tested at or above 30 ppb, with the highest readings between 200 ppb and 300 ppb. St. Louis’s public schools serve a student population that is more than 80 percent black, with 85 percent of students qualifying for the district’s free lunch program. Because the brain and neurological systems are still developing throughout childhood, exposure to lead puts children at increased risk of developmental delays or permanent damage. In neighboring St. Louis County school districts--where many of the students are white, wealthier, and have access to more resources--the idea of students consuming lead-contaminated water would be unthinkable.
These lead findings in St. Louis Public Schools are just the latest link in a generations-long story and struggle against environmental racism. On our nation’s first Earth Day in 1970, the St. Louis Metropolitan Black Survival Committee, a collective of Black residents advocating for the environmental concerns affecting Black communities, organized a “guerilla street theater” program called, “Black Survival: A Collage of Skits.” The event featured a series of short skits designed to raise awareness and educate audiences about the poor living conditions and environmental hazards impacting poor Black communities in St. Louis. The performance was part of a broader community effort to push the city’s politicians to address the rampant lead poisoning happening in Black neighborhoods. The closing monologue that day was given by a young man whose mother suffered from environment-induced respiratory problems:
How long must we wait before the world is free of pollution! Must we first stand on the brink of extinction and be devoured by rats and cockroaches and wars that never end… Our rich white brothers aren’t concerned about poor people being unemployed, they don’t care about the lousy schools. Or cops who whop the heads of the poor, and they don’t care about the expressways that displaced our neighborhoods and the problems of pollution they bring in.
The St. Louis Metropolitan Black Survival Committee recognized that their community-wide frustrations, oppressive living conditions and daily experiences with racism were the result of being systematically disenfranchised and continually disempowered by political leadership. The environmental concerns plaguing poor Black residents were not altogether separate from issues like police brutality, poverty, education disparity, and urban renewal.
Of equal importance to St. Louis’s history of environmental racism is the closing monologue’s mention of the role white residents played in the perpetuation of these life-threatening conditions. In the middle of the 20th century, swaths of white St. Louisans fled the city and formed a number of small towns in St. Louis County. These municipalities--90 of which still exist today--allowed residents to control the circulation of their wealth within homogeneous suburbs outside of the city limits. Many of the white residents who moved to the St. Louis County during this period still commuted to the city for work. But by 1970, St. Louis’s city population was 622,236--down from the 1950 peak of 856,769. This massive population shift out of the city, generally known as white flight, pushed Black St. Louis City residents, their tax base, and their infrastructure into a spiraling crisis.
THE enduring results of white flight in major metropolitan areas like St. Louis have been studied and well-documented. As white homeowners left the city of St. Louis, many of the resources, community stability, and political sway left with them. What remained was an economically depleted city center, a public school system dependent on property taxes that were suddenly freefalling, and several low income Black communities that had very few advocates or allies among the city’s leadership.
When already inadequate housing conditions worsened in the 1960s, Black families across St. Louis began noticing the physical symptoms of lead poisoning appearing disproportionately in a number of babies and children. Ivory Perry, an outspoken community leader and organizer, was instrumental in pushing the issue of lead poisoning into the political limelight. The Metropolitan Tenants Organization in conjunction with the People’s Coalition Against Lead Poisoning demanded stronger enforcement of the city’s lead control ordinance, cleansing of current dwellings, and more testing and treatment centers for children already affected. Despite the public health evidence and serious health risks, the board of aldermen in St. Louis resisted. In one particularly telling example, the city budget director requested $175 to send a technician to Chicago to learn more about testing lead levels in the bloodstream; the aldermen refused. The living conditions of St. Louis’s Black residents simply wasn’t a political priority.
Perry and others began their own community-led campaign to address the excessive amounts of lead found in the homes of Black families in St. Louis. In the book A Life in the Struggle: Ivory Perry and the Culture of Opposition, Judge Theodore McMillian, the city’s first black judge, is quoted saying, “The politicians, landlords, and physicians were upset. They didn’t like Ivory [Perry], they didn’t feel he had the expertise to make those charges.” In response to the campaign, the city committed itself to doing, quite literally, the bare minimum. Still, the few screenings they did conduct proved to be more damning than they had initially realized. In 1971, St. Louis Commissioner of Health, William Banton, announced that of 1,715 children screened for lead poisoning in the city, 671 had high levels of lead in their blood. Testing in one Black neighborhood, Yeatman, revealed 95 percent of all structures contained lead paint and more than half of the children there had lead poisoning.
The city’s continued neglect of Black neighborhoods and the environmental hazards that regularly harmed them became even more evident the following decade. In 1985, Missouri led all states in lead poisoning cases and St. Louis led all major cities by a wide margin. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) found that 10.9 percent of children screened in Missouri, and 8.2 percent of children screened in St. Louis, had toxic levels of lead in their blood. By comparison, the rate in New York was 1 percent. To make matters worse, the Reagan administration radically defunded lead-prevention programs across the country. The Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) lead prevention program, which gave out over $89 million to major cities in an attempt to combat lead poisoning nationally, was disbanded. This meant that the $400,000 the city of St. Louis received in federal money to combat lead poisoning in 1980 was gone by 1983. This, in addition to the city’s pernicious neglect in the 1960s and 1970s, meant that St. Louis’s lead poisoning epidemic trickled into the 1990s without much change. According to Charles Copley, who headed the St. Louis lead program for two decades, funding for lead prevention in St. Louis wouldn’t return to its 1980 level until close to 2000.
Nearly two decades later, President Donald Trump’s new plan to gut the EPA of its regulatory powers will make traditional federal lead prevention protocols nearly impossible to enforce--meaning this same disregard that low-income, Black communities in St. Louis have endured for generations will not only continue, but be further institutionalized.
THE St. Louis Public Schools water shutdown of 2016 serves as both a glaring reminder of the city’s decades-old neglect of fundamental public institutions, and a disconcerting glimpse into the city’s future. Many of the public resources and social safety nets that poor, Black St. Louis families are forced to rely on will likely fall into disrepair. Environmental racism frequently displays itself this way: the resources, safety nets, and preventative measures usually put in place to protect white communities from the risk of environmental hazards are either inadequate, inconsistent or utterly nonexistent when it comes to communities of color. Black parents in St. Louis--some of whom now live with lead poisoning--are watching their children suffer the same fate at the hands of equally indifferent city politicians. As the Trump regime prepares to destabilize, deregulate, and completely remove what little resources, safety nets, and preventative measures St. Louis has received, the lives of St. Louis’s youngest Black residents hang in the balance.
Ben Carson, who admittedly has no experience in housing or urban development, is now set to head one of the most influential federal departments in our country’s fight for race and class equity. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is a $48 billion agency in charge of public housing, tasked with preventing housing discrimination, and ensuring that low income families have access to safe homes and neighborhoods. Some speculate, for good reason, that Carson was chosen to head HUD to act as a smoke screen--a Black face to push through the racist and classist policies the future administration hopes to enact.
For low-income Black and brown communities across the country, the incoming administration shares the same destructive potential and prerogative of the Reagan regime. Reagan’s sole Black cabinet member was Samuel Pierce, appointed as Reagan’s head of HUD. With Pierce heading the department, Reagan went on to cut HUD’s budget authorizations from $32 billion in 1981 to under $7 billion in 1989, which likely ended or substantially weakened many of the public programs and initiatives that marginalized communities of color in cities across the country depended on for their health and survival. Pierce’s HUD also reduced the production of public housing units from 55,000 in 1979 to 0 in 1984. This is partly how Reagan gained reputation in many Black and brown communities as, perhaps, the most destructive president of the 20th century.
Reagan was instrumental in perpetuating the idea that government has no role in ending race and class discrimination, despite the historical record that the government has been instrumental in creating it. Following Reagan’s legacy, Carson ripped Obama's attempt to legislate racial equity through his work on fair housing, calling government involvement in racial equity "downright dangerous." We can expect the next four years to include dramatic legislative changes similar to Reagan-era policies: flippant disregard for the environmental hazards and concerns impacting already-struggling marginalized communities.
Unsurprisingly, the effects of environmental racism are only exacerbated by poverty, and disturbingly, Reagan and Carson share many of the same views on that as well. In a 1984 interview with David Hartman of ABC News, Reagan said, “The homeless… are homeless, you might say, by choice.” Nearly three decades later in a 2013 interview with a Baltimore radio station, Dr. Carson said, “Poverty was really more of a choice than anything.” Neither is an uncommon sentiment among Americans; there are plenty of people who incorrectly believe that poverty is the result of some individual moral failing (a lack of will or personal drive, perhaps). But when that shortsighted perspective is accompanied by substantial political power--the head of a federal department, for example--the result could mean a Housing and Urban Development Department that actively refuses to address the systematic and environmental causes of poverty, as well as the unique frustrations and concerns that affect the millions of Americans trying to survive those conditions.
ST. LOUIS is on the verge of a local fight that has far-reaching implications for the city’s lead problem--a risk greatly heightened by the political changes that loom, simultaneously, on our nation’s horizon.
Lyda Krewson, longtime St. Louis alderwoman and chief financial officer of a major redevelopment firm in St. Louis, is the establishment frontrunner in St. Louis’s upcoming mayoral race. Keeping in line with both Carson and Reagan, Krewson’s perspectives on poverty, homelessness and social services are notable. In February of 2008, on the onset of the Great Recession, Krewson was quoted in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, saying, “Most [homeless people] aren’t interested in regular employment… often panhandling is more lucrative.” At the time, Lyda Krewson was pushing for legislation that further criminalized homelessness in St. Louis by adding harsher restrictions and punishments for panhandling in certain areas and at certain times. Now, Krewson, who has been endorsed by the St. Louis Police Officers' Association, and is currently the alderwoman of a St. Louis neighborhood that has displaced more Black residents than any other neighborhood in the city of St. Louis, is running for mayor of the city. She also sits on the Housing, Urban Development and Zoning Committee of a city that has underfunded its own legally-mandated affordable housing efforts by nearly $2 million over the last 4 years.
If elected mayor, Krewson’s neoliberal views on poverty, public housing, and gentrification moonlighting as “urban development,” will certainly be emboldened by a Department of Housing and Urban Development headed by Ben Carson. For a city still struggling to sufficiently address its ongoing lead contamination issue, electing a Mayor who has a history of prioritizing corporate tax abatements and the centralized economic development of already-affluent neighborhoods over reinvesting in the social services, safety nets, and public institutions that impact Black neighborhoods in St. Louis--the future looks dim. The environmental concerns and long-term health consequences of St. Louis’s most vulnerable citizens will, again, fall by the wayside. Without intervention, the menace of lead exposure will continue to haunt Black communities.
Under the leadership of an incoming presidential administration that insists on reducing institutional-level failings down to a mass of unrelated individualized problems that simply happen to impact families across the country, the community-led fight to get clean water to the entire St. Louis Public Schools system will likely be buried beneath new political clutter and ignored. More and more schools will become privatized, eventually draining even more resources from public schools. Affordable public housing will disappear as development plans are drawn up for expensive condominiums. The very idea of education and housing as a guaranteed constitutional right for every American citizen appears to be decaying before our very eyes.
In St. Louis, much of what is to come rests on the upcoming mayoral election in March. Perhaps the next step for organizers and activists in St. Louis is one of mobilization. Their impressive work and telling wins in the elections of both Alderman Rasheen Aldridge and State Representative Bruce Franks mean the St. Louis activist and organizing community is not one to be underestimated. But despite the upcoming mayoral race, one thing local organizers can glean from Ivory Perry and the community leaders and activists of the city’s past is the importance of long-term community documentation. While it is a tedious task with seemingly distant benefits, collecting decisively conclusive aggregate data that uplifts and centers the experiences of marginalized communities could turn out to be a forceful tool against an administration--both nationally and locally--that seeks to dismiss them. The Trump administration, and the weight of its dystopian promises, can feel like a target too big to attack, but if we can build a sustainable resistance, focused on building local power with a keen eye on national politics, we will be able to collectively ensure the safety and survival of our most vulnerable comrades.