VP Kamala Harris
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Joohn Choe

VP Kamala Harris

VP Harris’ push for removal of lead pipes doesn’t merit a mention in the news. It gets ridiculed as a “photo opp”. I don’t think people even really understand what the stakes are here.

Lead exposure is linked with crime. Childhood lead exposure creates permanent deficits in impulse control, increased aggressiveness and higher rates of crime. Lead also builds up in the body over time, creating cumulative damage. The effects of lead on the brain are irreversible and permanent. Thus, cumulative childhood lead exposure, even in small amounts over time, creates a toxic lifelong legacy of diminished cognitive function that is horrific in its scale and the casualness with which we treat it. This is because lead is also, somewhat unfortunately, relatively easy to work with and build out of. It’s actually in our word for plumbing; the symbol for lead is “Pb” because the Latin word for lead is “plumbum”.

Lead is useful across a variety of industrial applications, including in paint and as a gasoline additive.

This is why, at the end of the 19th century and well into the 20th, lead pipes and fixtures were used throughout American water systems, lead was put into our house paint, and we put out massive amounts of lead into our air because of leaded gasoline. The result was increased crime rates directly attributable to the presence of lead; the lag time is about 23 years.

This is a statistically robust finding; a lot of people have attempted to critique it or find an alternate cause (abortion restrictions and their relationship to crime are another robust finding that’s not mutually exclusive with lead) because that’s how science works, and it’s withstood all those tests.

The thing about lead exposure and crime rates is that in America, it predominantly affects people of color, especially Black people who live in older buildings. This is, again, a statistically robust finding, because racism at the level we practice it in America is not about intentions and thoughts; we identify it as blatant patterns in the outcomes and the data.

Put that together: America, historically, poisons its people – everyone, but especially Black people – with lead that causes violence, and then we spread stereotypes about violence by Black people. That’s what Kamala Harris is talking about fixing.

This is what’s really at stake in Flint, Michigan; it’s what Harris was really talking about today in Wisconsin. And this is what Harris is putting concerted Federal effort onto remediating nationwide, not just for Black people, for everyone.

After Vice-President Harris made her speech, Paul Farrow, the chairman of the Republican Party of Wisconsin said she should spend “more time addressing the border crisis, working to lower prices, or fixing the crippled supply chain and less time on photo opps”. “Perhaps the Biden administration’s approval rating would be better than 33%”, he suggested.

The irony isn’t totally apparent so let me call it out explicitly:
That’s exactly the kind of statement that someone with high lifetime lead exposure degrading their cognitive function would say.

Wisconsin has very, very widespread lead in its water pipes, and the state government has been historically very slow in addressing it. And maybe if Republicans like Farrow spent more time fixing the slow poison that’s making them bigoted and stupid, their political party wouldn’t be world-famous for being so bigoted and stupid.

How about that.

—Image from Glauber, Bill and Linnane, Rory, “‘We just have to get rid of the lead’: Kamala Harris visits Milwaukee to highlight push to replace lead pipes”, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Jan 24, 2022, https://www.jsonline.com/…/kamala-harris…/6631021001/Gordon, Scott, “The slow horror of Wisconsin’s lead pipes”, Tone Madison, Jun 12, 2021, https://www.tonemadison.com/…/the-slow-horror-of…Sampson, Robert J. & Winter, Alix S., “THE RACIAL ECOLOGY OF LEAD POISONING: Toxic Inequality in Chicago Neighborhoods, 1995-2013”, Du Bois Review, 2016, https://scholar.harvard.edu/…/sampson_winter_2016.pdfYeter, Deniz, et al., “Disparity in Risk Factor Severity for Early Childhood Blood Lead among Predominantly African-American Black Children: The 1999 to 2010 US NHANES”, Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2020, https://www.mdpi.com/1660-4601/17/5/1552Water Boards of CA, California lead pipes maphttps://gispublic.waterboards.ca.gov/…/index.html…

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