“Just One Lick”: The Hidden Lead That Could Sicken Your Kids | An interview with pioneering lead toxicologist Howard Mielke.
By Sarah Zhang
Next time you inhale, you may want to thank toxicologist Howard Mielke for your lead-free air. Mielke’s research helped phase out lead from gasoline in the 1970s—a campaign that was successful in part because he managed to sample the lead-contaminated soil in his legislators’ own backyards. But Mielke considers his work far from done. As Kevin Drum writes in his Mother Jones cover story “America’s Real Criminal Element: Lead ,” remnants of the toxic metal, once disseminated by leaded gasoline into the air we breathed, still linger in the soil around us. Now in his 70s, the Tulane University professor and former Peace Corps volunteer continues to passionately campaign to clean up soil in cities.
• America’s Real Criminal Element: Lead 
• Is There Lead In Your House? 
• An Interview With Pioneering Toxicologist Howard Mielke 
• How Dangerous Is the Lead in Bullets? 
• Does Lead Paint Produce More Crime Too? 
• How Your Water Company May Be Poisoning Your Kids 
Mother Jones: You’ve written about when your own daughter had high blood lead  (PDF). Has being a parent changed how you felt about lead poisoning and the way it’s handled?
Howard Mielke: Oh, for sure! It was a totally accidental measuring of blood lead level for my daughter. She needed an operation to correct her crossed eyes, so during the preparation for all that, they were doing the bloodwork, and I said, “Well, measure the lead.” The people were resisting me. They were saying we don’t need to measure lead: You live in a nice part of St. Paul, you’re white folk. We don’t see high lead levels from children in your area. Well I said, “Measure it. Prove it.” When it got measured, it turned out it was elevated.
“They were saying: ‘You live in a nice part of St. Paul, you’re white folk. We don’t see high lead levels from children in your area.’ Well I said, ‘Measure it. Prove it.'”
I had been involved in doing lead work already, and I discovered that her childcare center in the state of Minnesota had interiors that were very well maintained, but they let the children go outside in basically a hazardous waste site because nobody had bothered about the outside. She was playing in a sandbox and around the sandbox was soil contaminated with lead from 500 to 1000 parts per million. [The current standard is 400 ppm.] I paid for the cleanup, which involved bringing in Tartan Turf, which is the material used in football stadiums. Her blood lead levels just plummeted very quickly after that.
MJ: How did you originally get interested in the problem of lead in soil?
HM: That came about when I was at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County. I was working on the geochemistry of serpertines , and I gradually shifted to looking at lead in the environment. I actually started collecting samples in my own backyard and discovered that the samples had a lot more lead than what you’d expect. In fact, they were close to what was recognized at the time—this was back in the mid-70s—would be recognized as hazardous waste if they were at an industrial site. My students collected samples from the gardens, and since it was a commuter campus, I would gain samples from all the metropolitan area. We kept track of the addresses and marked it on a map, and we started realizing the interior of the city was very highly contaminated.
Baltimore had brick buildings toward the interior of the city. The areas toward the outskirts were painted and had lead-based paint on them. When I looked at soils in the two different parts of the city, the low lead soils were the areas with painted buildings whereas the interior of the city had very high lead levels. Just from that I said, we’re missing something. That was when I started to pay attention to the amount of lead in gasoline. It proved to be a very large tonnage per year. The automobile was really a toxic substance delivery system.
MJ: Even today most people think of lead paint when they think of lead poisoning.
HM: In the 1970s, there was an article  in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives by Gary Ter Haar that stated basically paint was causing the major pollution of lead in urban soils. When we looked at Baltimore, the pattern we were finding was the opposite of what you would expect. It turns out Gary Ter Haar worked for the Ethyl Corporation[which manufactured the lead additive for gasoline]. There was a huge conflict of interest. The idea of paint being the major contributor of lead to the soil came from people who had a very long vested interest in not letting the cat of the bag.
MJ: What is it like working on a topic where most people are focused elsewhere?
HM: I’m always astounded by the inability to recognize that lead is lead. In the interior of the house, we have standards that are 40 micrograms per square foot. If you go outside and put your hand on the ground with a wipe so you can measure the amount of lead per square foot, what you end up with soil that contains 400 ppm, which is around 1500 micrograms per square foot on the surface. It’s just totally unbalanced. Using the standard we have in the US of 400 ppm, you would be poisoning the children very easily. How many minutes does it make for a child to play outside and put his hand in his mouth? We did work on hand licks. When children are outside, just one lick and it exceeds the total tolerable daily intake. Just one lick.
MJ: Why do you think it’s been so hard to draw attention to the problem of lead in soil?
HM: It’s hard because it’s such a big problem, you don’t want to recognize it. When I do some of my work, there are people who say, “I don’t want to know how much lead is in the soil.”
HM: Really. Not homeowners, not people with children, but landlords, realtors. They’d rather not know, and the laws are written that way. If you sell a house you’re supposed to have a disclosure. If you there’s lead-based paint in the house, you’re supposed to check a box. There’s another little box that says you don’t know, and you can check that.
MJ: Are there cities or programs that have tackled soil lead in interesting or innovative ways?
HM: Minneapolis did some interesting work and they did it very quietly. They just went through neighborhoods and block by block, they did what they just called a landscaping project: putting in clean sod. People didn’t object to it. They did that back in the 80s when I was working for them. HUD [the US Department of Housing and Urban Development] has changed public housing in New Orleans here, and in the process of new construction, they brought clean soil into the city.
“I keep suggesting tax gasoline. That is would be a good funding strategy, since lead in gasoline is a major reason for the contamination or our urban environment.”
You’ve seen our lead map , right? We’re trying to change that map and we’re making some progress. The problem is public properties are getting fixed little by little, but private properties are not getting fixed and that’s where the highest lead levels are. My work is towards private properties. I’m working with church groups and childcare centers. The trouble is I just don’t have enough money. Until we get funds, I keep suggesting tax gasoline. That is would be a good funding strategy, since lead in gasoline is a major reason for the contamination or our urban environment.
MJ: Does it drive you crazy that the return on investment is so high, yet no one is doing it?
HM: Yes, but I don’t want things to drive me crazy, I want to do something. I want to be an active participant changing the world so it’s a better world for our children. Now I’m a grandpa, so I’m paying attention to my children’s children.
Maya Rodriguez / Eyewitness News
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NEW ORLEANS — When Sarah Hess looks at her daughter Josie, she sees a healthy, happy child.
“She’s a really, really smart little girl and everybody tells me not to worry,” Hess said.
Yet, she does. She worries about an element that is all around them.
A test from her doctor found that Josie had acute lead poisoning, a potentially damaging diagnosis for a child which can affect how pathways in the brain develop. The Hess family immediately began lead remediation on their home.
“During that time, we started spending a lot more time at playgrounds and out of doors, trying to stay out of houses not realizing that the playgrounds that we were going to had higher lead levels than our house,” Hess said.
The lead levels in Josie’s blood shot up from the initial diagnosis of 8.8 micrograms to 18 micrograms, which led Hess to seek out as much information as she could about lead in the soil.
“It felt like a tragedy because here we had this beautiful daughter, who seemed perfect in every way, and people were telling us that her reading comprehension would never be as good,” she said.
Dr. Howard Mielke is a Tulane University researcher who has spent his career studying lead contamination in soil across the city. While much his attention has focused on lead-based paint from years past, Mielke places a lot of the blame squarely on something else – decades of using lead-based gasoline in cars, which began in the 1950s and was used until leaded gas was permanently banned in the United States in 1996.
“It’s hard for people to appreciate how much lead entered the city through just use of leaded gasoline,” Mielke said.
Consider this example – one packet of artificial sweetener contains about one gram of material in it. A gallon of leaded gas would release about one gram of lead into the air. In older cars, a tank of gas could usually hold around 20 gallons. That equals 20 grams of lead per car being released every time it went through a tank of gas.
“That’s one car,” Mielke said. “You think of the hundreds or thousands of cars that are moving around, you can start understanding the quantities that we are talking about.”
Using Census tracts as a foundation, Mielke and his team have collected more than 10,000 samples of soil from neighborhoods across New Orleans. The most recent tests included 5,500 samples and Mielke published a paper about those results late last year. When they mapped out their lead findings, they discovered a startling correlation.
“The high lead levels of the city are the areas that you tend to have the highest crime and that of course is the current situation,” Mielke said.
Lead in the bloodstream can lead to behavioral problems in children. It affects the way synapses develop in a child’s brain, especially the part of the brain which oversees impulse control. However, not everyone is convinced about a direct connection between lead and violent crime.
“Everyone wants a murder get-well pill,” said Tulane criminologist Peter Scharf.
Scharf said the roots of violent crime run deep.
“My own view is that this is a very complex process and lead may be a part,” Scharf said. “But really you have to look at it in comparison with other hypotheses – economic changes, cultural changes, gun laws in some cases.”
Mielke agreed that lead is not the only factor in crime, but he believes it is a major one.
“Lead is just a contributor and it seems to be a significant contributor to the tendency for crime,” he said, “but it’s not the only contributor.”
Researchers said the effects of lead poisoning have a 20-year lag time. That means leaded gas used in the 50s could be part of the reason behind the rise in violent crime in the 70s. It works the other way around, too. Leaded gasoline phased out in the early 90s could explain the drop in violent crime happening in a number of major cities now.
But that’s not the case in New Orleans.
“It’s a more soiled city,” Mielke said of New Orleans. “It has more open areas that are yards. (It’s) a yard-oriented type of city.”
Meaning, the lead stubbornly stays put. It does not break down.
The most-touted solution is containment and replacing soil, much like what the city did two years ago when it found high levels of lead at city playgrounds. Yet, Mielke thinks lead contamination should be considered a national issue, such as the way Norway handled lead contamination in its public spaces across the country.
“One of our problems at the federal level is that we have a Clean Air Act. We have a Clean Water Act,” he said. “We don’t have a Clean Soil Act.”
Meanwhile, Sarah Hess is working hard at trying to keep her children’s lead exposure to a minimum. That includes making everyone take off their shoes before entering their home and making sure the kids wash their hands properly.
In the meantime, she keeps a close eye on Josie.
“Josie seems fine, but we talk about empathy every day,” she said. “We do that because of her exposure, because we have to counteract it.”
For more information on Dr. Mielke’s research on crime and lead click here. For more information on Dr. Mielke’s Lead Lab click here. For more information Sarah Hess’ efforts click here and for the group NOLA Unleaded click here.