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April 12, 2009

Childhood Lead Exposure in Los Angeles: A Crisis of Health & Human Rights

By Jim Mangia, President & CEO, St. John’s Well Child and Family Centers

Over the last seven years, St. John’s Well Child and Family Centers, a network of federally qualified health centers and school based clinics, has been collecting data on blood lead levels for thousands of children in south Los Angeles. Since 2002, more than 10,000 children have been tested for lead poisoning. The results are truly frightening and point to widespread violations of health and human rights in south Los Angeles.

More than 50% of children who have been lead tested at St. John’s clinics show elevated blood lead levels. A report published by the New England Journal of Medicine in 2003, showed that these blood lead levels cause decreased brain function, central nervous system “dysfunctions” and “oxidative damage” to the brain in young children (Rogan & Ware, 2003).

St. John’s has a zero-tolerance for lead in the blood of our children. Lead is a heavy metal that is a neurotoxin, causing decreased brain function, developmental delays and disabilities, and brain damage, as well as liver and kidney damage. An environmental pollutant; more than 12 million pounds of lead were released into the environment in 2004 alone, mostly from industrial and manufacturing processes and sources (Centers for Disease Control, n.d., p. 304).

The effects of lead poisoning are severe and it is an extremely pervasive and deleterious environmental health disease. In addition to the direct cognitive and central nervous system damage discussed above, a recent longitudinal study has shown that relative low-levels of exposure to lead during childhood can permanently damage the brain and cause an increase in criminal behavior and propensity for violence (“Childhood Lead Levels Linked to Violent Crime”, 2008). Recent studies have shown that lead can have serious health effects on adults as well, including the accumulation of lead in placental tissue of pregnant women (Reichrtova, Doraciak, & Palkovicova, 1998) and a growing body of evidence showing a relationship between blood lead levels in adults and the development of hypertension (Korrick, Hunter, Rotnitzky, Hu, & Speizer, 1999) and anemia (Schwartz, Landrigan, Baker, Jr., Orenstein, & von Lindern, 1990).

Most lead exposure occurs as a result of the slum housing conditions in which most children and families reside in south Los Angeles and other inner city communities. The ingestion of chipping and peeling lead paint, and the inhalation and ingestion of lead dust, caused by substandard conditions such as moisture in the walls, are the major pathways. In decaying slum housing units, lead paint begins to degrade and forms dust which permeates housing units, infecting children in their homes. Therefore there is a direct correlation between the dust lead levels and elevated blood lead levels of the children who live in substandard and contaminated units (Wilson, Dixon, Galke, & McLaine, 2006).

Refusal by slumlords and owners to improve and repair slum housing units and the abject failure of city housing and building and safety inspectors to enforce laws and engage in inspections that would mandate repairs and renovation, have resulted in thousands of children being poisoned; resulting in long-term health affects. A public health crisis with widespread health ramifications could have been avoided, if only the law had been enforced. The effects of lead poisoning have been well known for over a generation. It is the unequal and inequitable enforcement of the law in Los Angeles, and the obvious disregard for the health and human rights of children living in poverty that resulted in the lead poisoning of thousands and thousands of our children.


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (n.d.). Toxic Substances Portal: Lead. Retrieved March 7, 2009, from http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/toxprofiles/tc13-c6.pdf

Childhood Lead Levels Linked to Violent Crime. (2008, May 28). Los Angeles Times, pp. 1, 22.

Korrick, S. A., Hunter, D. J., Rotnitzky, A., Hu, H., & Speizer, F. E. (1999). Lead and Hypertension in a Sample of Middle-Aged Women. American Journal of Public Health, 89(3), 330-335.

Reichrtova, E., Doraciak, F., & Palkovicova, L. (1998). Site of lead and nickel accumulation in the placental tissue. Human & Experimental Toxicology, 17, 176-181.

Rogan, W. J., & Ware, J. H. (2003). Exposure to Lead in Children – How Low is Low Enough? The New England Journal of Medicine, 348(16), 1515-1516.

Schwartz, J., Landrigan, P. J., Baker, E. L., Jr., Orenstein, W. A., & Von Lindern, I. H. (1990). Lead-Induced Anemia: Dose-Response Relationships and Evidence for a Threshold. American Journal of Public Health, 80(2), 165-168.

Wilson, J., Dixon, S., Galke, W., & McLaine, P. (2006). An investigation of dust lead sampling locations and children’s blood lead levels. Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology, 17, 2-12.