Last week, the third of six officers charged in the arrest and death of Freddie Gray was acquitted of all charges. On April 12, 2015, Gray, a 25 year-old Baltimore native, was arrested for possession of an illegal switchblade. During the trip to the police station in a transport van that followed he sustained severe spinal cord injuries and lost consciousness. Within one week, and without ever regaining consciousness, Freddie Gray died as a result of those injuries.
Long before his arrest and death, or the weeks of protest in Baltimore and around the country that followed his passing, Freddie Gray was just another Baltimore City “lead kid” – one of tens of thousands of children in the city impacted by prolonged exposure to lead-based paint in their homes. In 1990, at only 9 months old, Freddie had blood lead levels more than double CDC’s action level. By his first birthday it had spiked to 6 times the action level. And, at 22 months his blood levels were nearly 8 times the action level and 37 times the median level found in children under age 5.
Prolonged low-level lead exposure can result in behavior and learning problems, reduced IQ, increased hyperactivity and aggression. Acute exposure to high levels may lead to coma and even death. The effects of lead poisoning also echo well into the future, long after exposure is reduced, blood lead levels have returned to normal, and the affected child has grown up. Those that suffer elevated lead levels as a kid are more likely to drop out of school, abuse alcohol and drugs, commit violent crimes, and end up in jail.
While federal and state legislation has removed lead from gasoline, banned lead-based paint, required property owners to disclose known information about lead-based paint to homebuyers and renters, required rental properties to pass lead-contamination tests, and set strict regulations governing lead in drinking water, the problem persists. Today, at least 4 million young children are exposed to high levels of lead in the home, and at least 500,000 under the age of 5 have elevated blood lead levels.
Lead poisoning is just one health risk for those living in unhealthy and unsafe housing. Each day millions of Americans, particularly our most vulnerable (children, elderly, and persons with chronic illnesses and disabilities), are exposed to toxic substances in the home. Lead, radon, asbestos, volatile organic compounds, pests, mold, carbon monoxide, and environmental tobacco smoke are present in tens of millions of homes across the country; affecting the air we breathe and the water we drink. These hazards are also associated with a wide range of illnesses and injuries, including asthma, cancer, infectious diseases, falls, respiratory infections, and mental health issues.
Recognizing the enormous impact housing has on our health, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development designated June as “National Healthy Homes Month.” Through this effort the agency seeks to increase awareness about the effect poor housing conditions have on our health and the resources available to assist those in need; to empower families to protect themselves and their children.
This blog post was prepared by William Tilburg, Senior Staff Attorney at the Network for Public Health Law – Eastern Region at the Frances King Carey School of Law.
The Network for Public Health Law provides information and technical assistance on issues related to public health. The legal information and assistance provided in this post does not constitute legal advice or legal representation. For legal advice, readers should consult a lawyer in their state.
Support for the Network is provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, RWJF.