While many Iowan's likely have followed the story of the lead-tainted water in Flint, most people probably think that lead poisoning is an isolated problem only impacting the children of Flint. The truth, however, is that Iowa's children are lead poisoned at a higher rate than the national average and the failures in Flint, highlight a widespread problem that many people know nothing about, but that is entirely preventable.
Flint, Michigan is a city with a population under 100,000 where over 41% live below the poverty line. In 2015, multiple studies found that Flint's water supply was contaminated with lead as a result of various cost-saving measures previously taken by the City and that incidents of lead poisoning in Flint had increased dramatically. The investigation into the contaminated water found negligence and even criminal conduct on behalf of a number of public employees and has resulted in numerous lawsuits and prosecutions. The disaster in Flint has called attention to a nationwide health crisis—childhood lead poisoning—that is often overlooked because most of the children impacted are poor.
Lead poisoning is particularly devastating because it causes permanent brain damage in young children. It is heartbreaking that a poisoning that a child suffers at the age of one or two can impact that child for the rest of their lives. I have represented children who suffered such severe brain damage that they will never be able to live independently. Particularly scary is that children often display no visible symptoms of lead poisoning.
Unlike Flint, most Iowa children who are poisoned are exposed to lead paint and not contaminated water. Homes built before 1950 likely contain lead-based paint. While many impoverished children live in homes built before 1950, lead poisoning is not unavoidable—it is completely preventable. Lead paint that is kept in good condition is usually not a hazard to small children, who become poisoned through paint chips and paint dust. So, who is responsible and who is failing these children? In most cases, it is negligent landlords.
While many Iowa parents do not know about lead poisoning, most Iowa landlords do. Landlords are required to provide certain information to tenants regarding the risk of lead poisoning. Most landlords know that chipping and peeling paint causes childhood lead poisoning. Additionally, the law requires that landlords keep their properties in a safe condition, including keeping their properties free from lead hazards. Some cities, like Cedar Rapids and Waterloo, even have specific provisions in the City Code that require landlords to keep their properties lead safe.
So why are Iowa's children still becoming lead poisoned at such a high rate? One big reason is that landlords are not doing their jobs. This failure often goes undetected because many of the families and children impacted by lead poisoning are poor. But the injustice of robbing a child of his or her potential by simply failing to keep a property in good repair is no less great for poor children. If the water crisis in Flint has taught us anything, it is that every child deserves to grow up healthy and that the adults who fail those children should be held accountable.