Poisoned, Ignored and Evicted: The Perils of Living With Lead (rebroadcast)

Jul 18, 2018

Old paint, old pipes and demolition dust often are sources of toxic lead. It’s a poison known to cause neurological damage in children. For adults, new science shows lead exposure increases the risk of heart disease. Reveal investigates the lurking threat from the dust of urban demolitions to the wilds of Wyoming. This episode was originally broadcast March 31, 2018.

In Detroit, dust is a particular concern. Because of the population drop, the city is tearing down tens of thousands of empty homes. Contractors are supposed to follow strict protocols on  demolitions, but when those rules are not enforced, lead dust can drift around the neighborhood, poisoning children in unsuspecting families. Reporter Eilís O'Neill explores the impact.

Next, we go to the Fruitvale neighborhood in Oakland, California, where the rate of kids with high lead levels in their blood was greater than in Flint, Michigan, during the height of the water crisis there. Reporters Angela Johnston and Marissa Ortega-Welch of KALW in San Francisco explain how high housing costs and lead exposure are connected and introduce us to public health nurse Diep Tran, who says lead poisoning puts enormous stress on families.

“I've seen parents go into shock,” Tran says. “Most of them are anxious. Some feel guilty and go into denial, which is not good for the child, because parents in denial don't want to work with us. How can the child recover if we don't help the family?”

She says her only option sometimes is to advise families to move to a homeless shelter to escape exposure to lead.

Paul Flory could not escape. He grew up in Idaho’s Silver Valley, a longtime mining area that’s now a lead-laced Superfund site. Host Al Letson talks with him about going to school next door to a smelter and the struggles he’s had after his childhood lead poisoning was recorded – and then largely ignored.

Finally, we discover how tiny fragments of lead bullets hurt hunters’ unintended targets: eagles, condors and other scavenging wildlife. We trace lead dust from game guts to eagle brains in Wyoming.