Poison to Prison Pipeline

Most people would agree that the route out of poverty is to go to school, get good grades, and graduate, so that you can get a high paying salary to support yourself and family. What would Americans think if they heard that all over the country, children were being poisoned with a chemical that kept them in a lifetime of poverty? It sounds like a silly plot to a zombie blockbuster movie. Unfortunately this is not a movie and has been occurring in predominately poverty-stricken minority neighborhoods for decades in America. It is called lead poisoning. Lead poisoning made it’s way back to mainstream media in 2015, due to the “Water Crisis” in Flint, Michigan. What most people don’t know, is that, according to a Reuters report there are over 3,000 towns in America that have higher levels of lead than Flint. This epidemic has been taking place all across impoverished cities in America including Washington, D.C. Detroit, Cleveland, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Baltimore, Chicago, and Cincinnati, which all have the some of the highest rates of murder and violent crime in America.

So how are these children being poisoned? These poverty-stricken neighborhoods consist of un-renovated houses and schools that contain lead in the paint on the walls, dust on the windows, and in the water. By simply breathing and bathing in their houses, brushing their teeth, eating food that was cooked in the water of their house and drinking out of the water fountains at school, these children are being poisoned. One of the doctors named Mona Hannah-Attisha, who helped expose the lead poisoning scandal in Flint, Michigan, said, “If you were going to put something in a population to keep them down for generations to come, it would be lead.”

Let’s take a look at what lead does to the brain of a child. A study done by scholars at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine were able to use MRI to show how the structures of brains of humans with lead poisoning were damaged. The images confirmed that lead permanently removes the gray matter from the brain, destroys a person’s executive functions and ability to make decisions, causes impulsivity, psychological disorders, learning and cognitive disabilities, behavior problems, aggression, and lowers your IQ. The fact that these brain damaging issues are permanent and irreversible is clear that these children are set up for a lifetime of poverty.

In another study, Harvard University researcher, Robert J Sampson, found that lead poisoning was occurring in the same areas of Chicago which gave birth to its nickname “Chi-raq”, due to its war zone violence similar to Iraq. Not surprisingly this area is also where high rates of poverty and academic failure reside. More than 80 percent of the children tested in Chicago during 1995, had extreme levels of lead in their blood. Fast forward twenty years and now those children are in their mid 20’s which is the prime age for violent crime. Sampson’s final data resulted in a map that showed lead poisoning rates for children younger than 6 in 1995 looks nearly identical to a map of violent crimes in 2012. One might say that other factors such as poor schooling, lack of parental guidance, and poverty is responsible for the crime in the inner city and not lead. Between 1979 and 1984 researchers recruited 250 children for the Cincinnati Lead Study. The researchers controlled for factors such as socioeconomic background, race, and maternal stimulation. The researchers watched over the records of the children until the year 2005. Interesting enough the results showed that no matter the household income, no matter the race of the individual and parental involvement, those who had high levels of lead were 50 percent more likely to be arrested as an adult for crimes than those without lead poisoning. This exact same study was done in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia and resulted in the same conclusion.

Not only does lead cause violent crime but it keeps thousands of children in the inner city trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty. As mentioned before, most people will agree that the route out of poverty is making the choice to go to school, earning an education and getting a job. First we must ask how thousands of poor children in America can do well in school and get a job when lead poisoning has permanently destroyed their brains by the time they can even walk. To make matters worse, not only are their brains destroyed, but they are already living in poverty. Trying to afford the expensive health costs of medical treatment for their mental disabilities is out of the question. This makes it even harder for children and adults to climb their way out of poverty. A former chief of lead poisoning prevention at the Chicago Department of Public Health, named Anne Evens performed a study on the 58,000 Chicago children who had been testes for lead. After her research she found that no matter the race, household income, and mother’s educational level, lead poisoning damaged a child’s ability to properly read by the time they were in third grade. Third grade is a very critical grade because it is when children begin using reading comprehension skills for other subjects. Studies show that if a child cannot read at grade-level standard by third grade then that child is more likely to fall behind all throughout their academic career, drop out of high school, and end up in poverty and prison. This study by Evens displays just how lead poisoning delivers a huge blow to a child’s academic performance and sets them up for a life time of hardships.

Unfortunately some people believe that poverty is a lifestyle a person chooses, by deciding not to work hard. Hopefully more awareness on topics such as lead poisoning will show that the thousands upon thousands of children, predominately in low income minority neighborhoods in America, did not choose to be poisoned by this chemical. They did not choose to have their brains permanently destroyed by a chemical that prevents them from properly functioning like other people. If our society would like to put an end to the inhumane cycle of poverty and violence in inner cities, there should be more funding to remove lead from these houses. In the meantime, awareness about this issue needs to be spread, as well as mental health services to treat the psychological effects of lead poisoning. If we know that our fellow American citizens are being poisoned every day, it should be treated like a state of emergency.