Podcast #25: Lead and Kids

Our latest Undark podcast looks at a misguided U.S. crackdown on lead poisoning; violence in the media; and the personal toll of a genetic disorder.

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Join our podcast host and former NYT editor David Corcoran as he talks with Charles Schmidt about a misguided U.S. crackdown on lead poisoning. Also, Vanessa Schipani on media violence, and Garrett Tiedemann on the personal toll of a genetic disorder.


Here’s a full transcript of the podcast, lightly edited for clarity.

David Corcoran: This is Undark. We’re a magazine devoted to exploring the intersection of science and society, and we’re this podcast. Hello again. Welcome to Episode 25. I’m David Corcoran.

For our cover story, a number that shocked me when I read it: 37 million. That’s the number of American homes that still have lead paint. As we know all too well, lead is toxic, especially for children. It can damage developing nervous systems and lead to lower IQs and behavior problems. What to do about it, though, has been a problem forever. As Charles Schmidt reports in Undark, the problem is only getting more tangled and frustrating. Charles Schmidt joins us now. Charlie, welcome to the podcast.

Charles Schmidt: Great to be here, David. Thanks for having me.

David Corcoran: First of all, am I right to be surprised that lead contamination is still such a big problem in the U.S.? I don’t recall reading that much about it, except in regard to those lead-coated pipes in Flint, Michigan.

Charles Schmidt: Well, the Flint situation, that was a drinking water problem. Certainly an important one, but the number that you cite, 37 million homes still covered, to some degree, in lead paint, that’s from a survey that was conducted by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Really, it’s stayed fairly constant. The number prior, in 2000, was 38 million. We definitely have a big problem with lead-contaminated houses in the country. Most of them are … Well, all of them, actually, were built prior to 1978, which is the year that lead paint was banned. It’s really a problem in older homes.

David Corcoran: How do children take up the lead? I’ve heard about eating paint chips that are lead paint. Is that generally sort of how it gets into the body?

Charles Schmidt: Yeah, absolutely. What we’re talking about here are older homes, typically, and poor neighborhoods, homes that aren’t well maintained where the lead paint is flaking off and there’s a lot of lead — 75 percent lead by weight, typically, and it’s sweet, so kids like how it tastes. It doesn’t take much to have an impact on the brain.

David Corcoran: How did you get interested in this subject, Charlie?

Charles Schmidt: Well, I’ve been reporting on environmental health issues for a long time, and this really has come out of years of reporting. It always struck me that lead is a public health issue that seems to come cyclically in the press — and you think it’s over, and suddenly there it is again — and I was wondering, why are we getting hung up on this, why is this initiative we can’t seem to fix and that was the motivation for starting to write the story.

David Corcoran: Charlie, a lot of your story centers around rather complicated statistical concepts, so I’m going to ask you to try to simplify as much as you can for our listeners. A very big part of the issue revolves around a concept known as reference level. What does that mean exactly?

Charles Schmidt: Well, the reference level is a statistical measure that describes average blood lead levels in a majority of the population. It’s pegged to something called 97.5 percentile, meaning that 97.5 percent of the population has a level lower than the reference level. Right now, the reference level is 5 micrograms per deciliter, that means 97.5 percent of the population has a blood level. Again, we’re talking about children here, younger than 6, have blood lead levels less than 5 micrograms per deciliter. If you have a level that is over that, then you’re outside this majority.

David Corcoran: You write that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that’s CDC, wants to lower the benchmark for allowable blood levels in children — that is, make the standards for lead exposure even tougher than they are now. But some of the experts you spoke to think this is a bad idea. Why is that?

Charles Schmidt: What we have now, the reference level is currently set at 5 micrograms per deciliter, and CDC monitors that level and then updates it every four years, and it’s set now to drop to 3.5. That’s to reflect where the current averages are nationally now. But some of the experts I spoke with [say] that’s just asking too much of the reference level. It’s misinterpreted as a diagnostic threshold for lead poisoning, which it isn’t, and it’s triggering interventions for kids that have these really low exposures — and most of them are from middle- and upper-middle-class backgrounds. When you drop the reference level — even though it’s coming from a well-intentioned place — the worry, according to the sources I spoke to, is that it’s just going to divert resources away from the inner cities and the poor neighborhoods where they’re really needed. At the same time, it can cause a lot of confusion over which kids are really lead poisoned and which ones are not.

David Corcoran: The thinking is that given that public health resources are limited, that there just isn’t that much money to address this problem. If you lower this threshold, you’ll sweep more kids into the picture, kids who are exposed to really minuscule amounts of lead, and as some other resources will therefore go to them, to monitoring their blood levels and doing interventions instead, keep them from getting exposed and therefore, the kids who are really getting the most exposure are likely to be neglected.

Charles Schmidt: Yeah, that’s exactly true. You can look back. In fact, what happened historically, back in 2012 for example, the Centers for Disease Control dropped what was then called the action level, which was 10 micrograms per deciliter, they dropped it down to what we now call the reference level, which is 5. So they cut that level in half. And at the same time, the CDC’s budget for lead poisoning and prevention control was cut by something like 90 percent. The effect of that was that you dramatically increase the numbers of kids that were considered to be lead-poisoned at the same time that you were cutting way back on resources to deal with them.

There’s a concern that the same thing could happen right now. If we dropped the level from 5 to 3.5, which is what the Centers for Disease Control wants to do, according to one survey that I read, the numbers of kids could go up sevenfold. So you’d have literally hundreds of thousands of children conceivably being drawn into the system. And meanwhile, the Trump administration, some reporting has shown, would like to cut billions of dollars out of lead poisoning and prevention. If you could have a repeat of what happened back in 2012, dropping that level, bringing a whole bunch of new kids into the system that had questionable poisoning, diverting funds away from the poorer kids that really need it and at the same time, cutting resources to be able to deal with any of them.

David Corcoran: So let’s talk about one of those kids. You interview a Mom in East Columbus, Ohio, with a young boy named Michael. Talk about them.

Charles Schmidt: Sure. This is Shecara Norris. She moved into her home in East Columbus. She had five children at the time. She was pregnant with her sixth. Michael was very young and he wound up with 30 micrograms per deciliter in his blood. This was an older house — I think it was 1920 was what the house dated back to, in a poor neighborhood, a crime-ridden neighborhood as she told me. Thirty micrograms per deciliter is way over the 5 micrograms per deciliter threshold. He obviously had a big problem. It wasn’t only him. All the kids were actually poisoned or exposed to some degree but not as much as he had been.

Interestingly, what they were told by the city health department was that they’d have to find another place for Michael to live. He ended up moving in with his godmother. The other children, they were told, could only stay in one room where the lead levels were low. They were advised to keep all their children in that room. It was really a fiasco, and they didn’t have the money to move, but then they ended up moving after that to two successive different homes.

Ironically, those homes were also lead-contaminated older houses in East Columbus. So yeah, it was a real problem for them.

David Corcoran: The experts and advocates that you talked to for your story, what kinds of measures do they advocate to try to get this problem under control?

Charles Schmidt: I think what everybody agrees on is that we need to do more about getting to the lead and the homes before the children get exposed. You have to set that as your first condition. Then the question is how you go about doing it. Right now, what we have is a system where, in most parts of the country, you wait for the blood lead level to rise above a particular threshold and that will then trigger some kind of a response. The problem is, for the kids that’s too late, because lead’s effects on the brain are irreversible. Although they can be ameliorated to some degree with treatment, dietary changes, if you can create a cognitively stimulating environment for the child as he’s growing up, that can have a positive impact on brain wiring and you can overcome maybe some of the deficits that you’d expect. But at the much higher levels of exposure, that toxicity is irreversible.

What they argue for is something called primary prevention, where instead of waiting for the lead levels to go up and then responding to find mechanisms to go in and actually clean the lead up in the homes before the children are exposed. The approaches for doing that vary from state to state. Then some aren’t doing it at all.

David Corcoran: This is kind of what we did back in the 70s, when we outlawed leaded gas and lead paint. These two very big prevention measures, which unfortunately don’t seem to have eliminated the problem.

Charles Schmidt: No, but taking the lead out of gasoline had a huge impact on national blood lead levels. I mean if you look at the data, they plummeted dramatically. Back in the 1970s, the average blood level in everybody was about 15 to 16 micrograms per deciliter, so about three times higher than what the reference level is now.

David Corcoran: Let’s talk about the effects of the lead for kids who have these very high levels of lead in their blood. What are the developmental effects? Does it affect their performance in school, affect their behavior? What can they look forward to as they grow up?

Charles Schmidt: Well, the main thing that people are concerned about with lead exposures are drops in IQ. It literally has an effect on your intelligence, and you can grasp statistically how IQ will drop as a function of increasing exposure. So the more lead that you have in your blood, the lower your IQ is going to fall. That effect is worse for the kids at very high levels of exposure. Those kids definitely can have severe cognitive deficits. You hear about kids that have been poisoned and 45, 50, 60, 80 micrograms per deciliter. I spoke to a doctor [who] told me just a tragic story about a little girl she had known in her practice, and that kid came in with acute lead poisoning, was treated chelating drugs that pulled the lead out of the blood and flush it out in urine.

That’s the first thing to do. It’s a life-saving measure. But in the next week, she saw the kid, who could no longer count to 10. You can have big problems for kids at these higher exposure levels. But for the kids that are at the much lower exposure levels — and we’re talking about, in particular, less than 10 — what doctors will typically do and the pediatrician that I spoke to in the story, Nicholas Newman, there’s a few things that they will try to do to sort of compensate for the effect of lead. First of all, you can try to reduce its absorption in the gut by giving diets that are high in vitamins. And one of the most important things you want to do, in addition to these dietary improvements, is just spend a lot of time trying to create cognitively interesting and stimulating environments for a child to just help that brain wiring. Doing that can bolster compensatory mechanisms in the brain. You can help the brain compensate for the effect of lead; and you may still continue to have some effect from it, but it’s not going to be as apparent. I mean, the outlook for kids at very low exposure levels can be pretty good, depending on parenting and diet and the right kind of home environment and school environment.

David Corcoran: What about the outlook for the nation as a whole? If you got out your crystal ball and looked 20 years into the future, do you think we’re going to have this problem under control?

Charles Schmidt: I think that there’s a lot of interest in the states right now, especially, to do something about it. You have more states looking into primary prevention, trying to deal with lead problems in these dilapidated houses. And just with time, since lead paint isn’t being sold anymore, at least domestically in the United States, it’s a problem that with time, is going to slowly, slowly dissipate.

David Corcoran: What is the practical effect of defining the reference level at this lower number, 3.5?

Charles Schmidt: Really, for the CDC, it’s a way of tracking what’s happening with blood lead levels in the population, and what they will argue is that they will by homing in now on the kids that are higher than 3.5, they’re just continuing to look with greater and greater resolution at where kids with elevated blood lead levels are in the population. So it does have that practical benefit. The problem becomes when you start to use the reference level as a trigger for some kind of intervention, because as I said before, those are very, very low levels. And if you start to devote a lot of resources to working with families at these very low levels, then you’re potentially diverting resources away from the kids that are really much more highly poisoned that need them more.

David Corcoran: Charles Schmidt is a recipient of the National Association of Science Writers’ Science in Society Journalism Award. His work has appeared in Science, Nature Biotechnology, Scientific American, Discover magazine, and now, of course, Undark. He is the author of our Case Study this month on lead in children. Thanks a lot for doing this story and for coming onto the podcast to talk about it.

Charles Schmidt: It was my pleasure, David. Thank you very much.

David Corcoran: For our segment on science and the media, we’re joined by Vanessa Schipani. She reports and writes for an Undark partner called SciCheck, and I’m going to let her tell you what that is. Vanessa, welcome.

Vanessa Schipani Well, thank you for having me.

David Corcoran: So, SciCheck, that’s S-C-I-C-H-E-C-K dot org, and you call yourself a writer and a philosopher of science. Explain what SciCheck is, and explain what you do.

Vanessa Schipani: SciCheck is a project of FactCheck.org, which is based at the Annenberg Public Policy Center here at the University of Pennsylvania. It’s my job to specifically look at claims about science made by U.S. politicians. I have always kind of seen myself as someone who is half journalist, half philosopher. I have a master’s in the history and philosophy of science and a bachelor’s in philosophy as well. It’s very useful.

The way that politicians often twist science has something to do with how they look at the scientific process and the scientific method. An example that I often give is, politicians might say something like, “Well, we don’t want to do anything about climate change because we don’t have 100 percent certainty that climate change is occurring.” But the fact of the matter is that scientists don’t really have 100 percent certainty about anything, so that argument is kind of faulty. Science is not based on proof. It’s based on evidence to support or refute a certain theory.

So when I look at those arguments that politicians make about science, I at least believe that my expertise in philosophy, specifically the philosophy of science, helps me get at why those claims might be faulty — in addition to just being a journalist and being able to dive into the scientific literature and pick out the best papers that support or don’t support a certain claim.

David Corcoran: So, Vanessa, for SciCheck this month, we reprinted your article in Undark. You dived into this whole debate about the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, in February. You came at it from a different angle from most of the news coverage. You looked into a claim that is often made about exposure to violence in the media, and here’s President Trump in a speech on February 22, which was eight days after the shooting in Parkland.

President Trump: Or you mentioned the internet, we have to look at the Internet because a lot of bad things are happening to young kids and young minds, and their minds are being formed. And we have to do something about maybe what they’re seeing and how they’re seeing it. And also video games. I’m hearing more and more people say the level of violence on video games is really shaping young people’s thoughts.

David Corcoran: This seems kind of intuitive. A lot of people believe that exposure to media violence, especially violent games and violent movies and so on, does play a role in actual violence. But just because something sounds like common sense doesn’t mean that it stands up under scrutiny. So how did you explore this whole question of whether video games, movies, and so on actually lead to violent behavior?

Vanessa Schipani: A lot of popular media articles looked at the link between mass shootings and violent media — or violence and violent media — and they kind of either just drop very shortly or almost completely ignored any sort of link between an increase in aggression and violent media. This was actually one thing that is a very important distinction for researchers in the field. Aggression, to them, is a minor form of violence. They have this saying that all forms of violence are forms of aggression but not all forms of aggression are forms of violence.

It was important for me to look at the whole spectrum of behavior in this area. It really depends on what behavior or thought or emotion we’re talking about. There was a report by the American Psychological Association that found that there is sufficient research to suggest that video games in particular, violent video games are having an effect on how children over 14. So that was another little minor nuance thing. A lot of studies haven’t actually been done on kids that are very young, so we’re looking at young adults and older teenagers. But they found that there is an effect [from] violent video games on thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, aggressive behaviors. But it doesn’t necessarily make children or adults mass shooters.

David Corcoran: So how do scientists know this and how do they study the relationship between exposure to violence in the media and the actual aggressive behavior?

Vanessa Schipani: So they do it in three ways and you need studies, three different kinds of studies to converge towards having a well-supported causal link.

They look at cross-sectional studies, and these are studies that will just link one thing to another thing. They try to control, so in this case it would be like aggressive behaviors [after] watching a half an hour of violent television or playing a half an hour of violent video games. They’ll link these two things and they’ll try and control based on other studies for other factors that affect aggression, [like] how they’re raised by their parents. … So that’s a very important thing to mention: that this is just a correlation. It’s not causation. Based on those studies, there is support for this idea that there is a link between aggressive behaviors, thoughts, and emotions and playing violent video games. But that alone is not enough to support the link, the causal link.

Scientists also do longitudinal studies, and these studies actually follow one group of people as they’re children until they’re adults and says, “O.K., well, these people played this amount of video games and this other control group played a lot less or none,” and then they follow them into adulthood and along the way they’re also collecting data for specific individuals on how they were raised and what other potential risk factors they were exposed to. Then, at the end of the longitudinal study, they’ll say, “O.K., based on this group of people, this is the link that we have found or have not found.” Those studies are very hard to conduct because they take years if not decades to collect data. And that takes a lot of money.

The third kind of study is an experiment, which is the kind of study that would be able to provide the most causal evidence. You can actually manipulate certain factors, but on the other hand experiments are limited because they’re done in laboratories and laboratories aren’t quite exactly how we live in the real world. The way that scientists look at it is, “O.K., well, all of these studies have their pluses and minuses, and they kind of fit together as a puzzle. They kind of meet each other. If you put them all together, that is enough data to actually infer a causal link between aggression and violent video games or violent TV.”

David Corcoran: How strong is the link?

Vanessa Schipani: It depends on the kind of study. The researchers at the APA, the authors who looked at the link, they found a link. They said, “O.K., we’ve got enough evidence from all of these studies to say that there is a causal link.” However, later on, researchers have looked at these studies and found that the experimental literature might be subject to something called publication bias. This is a phenomenon that happens in psychology. It can also happen in other forms of science, where it’s more likely that a researcher will be able to publish or will be interested in publishing a positive result. So if you have a body of literature that has a higher likelihood of publishing positive results, that’s going to skew the whole body of literature towards saying, “O.K., well, there actually is a link here.”

A group of researchers, actually, who are affiliated with the Annenberg Public Policy Center, found that experimental data is subject to publication bias. However, cross-sectional studies were not, so that’s an important distinction. Whereas they did not look at longitudinal studies because there really just aren’t enough of them because they’re very hard to conduct.

The last thing I’ll mention is that the researchers who originally did the meta-analysis on that subject went back and looked at the research again and said, “No, we still think that this is a societal concern. The effect size is not as small as these people who looked at our research before, so we still think it’s a societal concern.”

The moral of the story is that there’s still debate over aggression but there’s more research that suggest that there is a link than there isn’t a link.

David Corcoran: Do scientists have anything to say about like a specific act of violence like this young man who was accused of murdering 17 people? Was he affected by the violence he was exposed to and video games or on TV?

Vanessa Schipani: So it was reported that the shooter at Stoneman Douglas did play a lot of violent video games, but pretty much every single researcher that I talked to for this article said that you can’t really have solid causal evidence for something like mass shootings, because they’re actually a statistically rare event and in order to have a solid link between one phenomenon and another, you need a lot of instances of that phenomenon. When you look at the shooter at Stoneman Douglas, all you can really provide for him is anecdotal evidence. That’s an important distinction between statistical evidence, which is really what I looked at. You could point out that he played video games. But to say that video games played a role in him committing that act is far from scientific.

David Corcoran: It seems like only common sense to say that lots and lots of kids play violent video games or go to movies that are shoot-’em-ups, but relatively few kids grow up to be lawbreakers, much less mass killers.

Vanessa Schipani: Right. That’s an actually a very important point and one thing that a lot of the researchers that I talked with said is that … That’s why I tried to make a point in the very top of my article to say that this is a risk factor, not a cause. That’s an important distinction. When you look at why people behave or think or feel in the way that they think or feel or behave, there are a number of different factors that are interacting in the real world within that and that they’re affected by.

The majority of kids who play violent video games or watch violent television, they do not become mass murderers. What scientists told me was that you need the convergence of a lot of different risk factors to actually lead a person to commit these kind of acts. If you’ve got just a kid whose parenting is not a violent form of parenting and they don’t have any other sort of risk factors for violence, then if they play video games, they’ve only got one risk factor among many. But if you pile all the risk factors together, the probability that someone will become violent increases with every risk factor. That’s why you see a lot of children who play violent video games and don’t become violent.

David Corcoran: We shouldn’t let it pass that one of the risk factors is the availability of guns to do the shooting with.

Vanessa Schipani: Right, yes. So that, completely unprompted, I just asked the researchers who I contacted, I just asked them, “O.K., well, we’ve got violent media, what about other risk factors?” I did not say anything about guns.

Every single one of them said, “Well, one thing that is unique in the United States is our accessibility to guns.” One researcher I spoke with, his argument was that “O.K., well, it is unique to the United States that we have higher accessibility to guns than other developed countries. If we’re going to look at the debate on whether or not we should regulate media violence more or less, well, if there isn’t going to be action on gun violence, then maybe we should have action on other things because we’re piling a lot of risk factors all on top of each other.” That’s more of an opinion, so that’s not something that would necessarily go into a FactCheck.org article. But it is worth mentioning that given the climate that we have in the United States when it comes to accessibility of guns, it might mean that we regulate media violence differently than another country. That was his other argument.

David Corcoran: Listeners, you can find Vanessa Schipani’s article called “The Truth About Media Violence” on our website, Undark.org. Vanessa Schipani is a science journalist and philosopher of science at FactCheck.org, which is part of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. Vanessa, thanks so much for joining us.

Vanessa Schipani: Thanks for having me.

David Corcoran: Chronic disease is just an abstract concept, until it comes for somebody close to you. For reporter Garrett Tiedemann, a protein disorder called alpha-1 AAT deficiency is all too personal. Here’s Garrett with the story.

Mother: Can you look just to see if I did it right? You know, where that cord comes out. Did I plug it in O.K.? I was getting so out of breath. I thought I did O.K.. You have to turn it off, right?

Garrett Tiedemann: For a patient with alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, getting on with the day can be a herculean task. For my mom, diagnosis has been a double-edged sword. It means she can get treatment, but that treatment also happens to be 5.6-pound portable oxygen tank when filled. When you have 23 percent lung capacity, there is no choice but to augment your day with an oxygen tank. Puffs in the air echo in time like a clock, dictating the rhythm of every change.

Mother: You’re sitting there knowing you need this oxygen [laughs], and yet you’re not able to get it off the main storage unit. So, you spend your time looking at this unit, thinking, now how am I going to get this off? It can be a struggle, and it’s stressful because you wonder, are you going to be able to manage to get it filled without any problem? Or is it going to freeze up, and so then you’re going to have to get a screwdriver and try to pry it loose, so that you can take your larger tank as well as your small one?

Garrett Tiedemann: The oxygen tank is a permanent part of our lives now, because there is no cure. Her health will gradually decline over time.

Mother: Most people don’t understand how gradually limiting it is. Part of what keeps our lungs healthy is being able to exercise five to six days a week. Although I do that religiously, it continues to have — extreme fatigue that comes along with having shortness of breath and really needing oxygen.

Garrett Tiedemann: Alpha-1 antitrypsin, also called AAT, is a protein made in the liver. Normally the protein travels through the bloodstream and helps protect the body’s organs from the harmful effects of other proteins. The lungs are one of the main organs that the AAT protein protects. AAT deficiency occurs if the AAT proteins made in the liver aren’t the right shape. They get stuck inside the liver cells and can’t get into the bloodstream. As a result, not enough AAT proteins travel to the lungs to protect them. This increases the risk of lung disease. Doctors don’t know how many people have AAT deficiency. Many people who have the condition may not know they have it. Estimates vary from one in 1,600 to about one in every 5,000 people. Without AAT, the lungs degrade the same way they do in emphysema patients. Weekly infusions replenish the missing protein in the lungs, creating a stopgap that slows the disease. But not forever.

To get to the treatment stage though, you first need a diagnosis, and that in itself takes doing.

Mother: Typically, most patients can be misdiagnosed with asthma or COPD for many, many years. I went through a series of three pulmonologists, and they never did the blood test required to be able to diagnose alpha-1, nor was that brought up in the discussion of what was causing my problems.

Garrett Tiedemann: It’s a simple blood test, a pinprick, the one with lasting consequences.

Mother: Our lives tend to be tipped upside down. I have been in a professional career for almost 40 years, and I was very active and involved and loved sports when I was younger, and yet as the shortness of breath continues, it becomes much more difficult to be engaged in what you really want to be able to do.

Garrett Tiedemann: I’ve watched my mom’s health decline for most of my life — memories of a more active parent replaced with the reality of one who increasingly needs help and support. Yet she persists. She stays active and works to improve the lives of existing and newly diagnosed patients every day, playing the part of the advocate she wished she’d had during her diagnosis.

Mother: I’ve been able to really do some good work, educating doctors, really reinforcing how they need to be testing. I think for most of us who have alpha-1, we struggle a lot trying to figure out so much of how we’re going to adapt our lives.

Garrett Tiedemann: Without a cure, without lots of researchers actively searching for one, patients rely on approaches that hold it at bay. There’s no way around the fact that my mom will eventually die from complications of this disease. Every cough or sneeze possibly conduit to pneumonia or bronchitis — illnesses almost insurmountable for a patient with alpha-1. But she chooses not to focus on that. Her goal is to get up every day to go forward with purpose and resolve.

Mother: What I have to do is when I’m filling the tank, it’s very loud initially, and then as it goes along, the loudness gets less. Then what happens is I have to listen for it to do the one sputter. The very first time when that sputter occurs, I have to release the lever, which tells me that it’s full.

Garrett Tiedemann: It’s hard enough being attached to a machine around your home, but when you need to leave, you have fill portable concentrators. Multiple ones for a day. Equipment that weighs down every movement. It would be enough to discourage a person from ever going outside again. But not my mom.

Mother: The struggles are constantly in front of us, but it’s the kind of thing that also challenges you because I refuse to let it get the best of me. I’m an optimist and I’m positive and I’m always trying to figure out ways to make things easier.

Garrett Tiedemann: For Undark, I’m Garrett Tiedemann.

David Corcoran: And that’s all for this episode of Undark, a project of the Knight Science Journalism program at MIT. Our show is produced by Katie Hiler. Special thanks to Lucas Randall-Owens. We’ll be back next month with more news and interviews from the intersection of science and society. Until then, I’m David Corcoran, for Undark.

See What Others Are Saying

3 comments / Join the Discussion

    Thanks for the interview with Charles Schmidt. It added to the information in his article. I follow a Lead group for parents on Facebook. Many of the families are middle and upper income concerned about lead in bath tub glaze and old dishes – like grandma’s old mixing bowls. They panic over a detectable lead level in the ink on the outside of a glass sippy cup or the nut on the outside of the base of their Instant Pot. They are desperate to find the source for their child’s lead level of 1.2. If the CDC drops the reference level to 3.5, you will see a flood of those more affluent parents demanding services for their children. It might help if the CDC had the courage to define both a reference level AND an Action level.

    I am a historic preservationist looking and hoping for a way to keep people safe AND keep the old houses.

    So many factual errors. Most lead paint is not 75%, that’s putty. Most lead paint is less than maybe 5%, still a lot. Also, lead paint is not sweet, a myth. Sugar of lead is lead acetate, not used in paints. Pica cravings also seek out clay flavor.
    Could go on about reversibility and stigma.
    Yes, we need to prioritize and figure out who is going to pay for what, old plumbing, old houses, toxic soil…
    Also, children get lead via normal hand to mouth activity, but their hands have lead bearing dust., not eating paint chips. Yes, hand washing helps.

    So many factual errors. Most lead paint is not 75%, that’s putty. Most lead paint is less than maybe 5%, still a lot. Also, lead paint is not sweet, a myth. Sugar of lead is lead acetate, not used in paints. Pica cravings also seek out clay flavor.
    Could go on about reversibility and stigma.
    Yes, we need to prioritize and figure out who is going to pay for what, old plumbing, old houses, toxic soil…

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