Lead in Philadelphia

April 2019 ยท 3 minute read

Lead removal and remediation is a key plank of the Philadelphia Green New Deal. For those of you who weren’t informed, Philadelphia has a giant lead problem - it’s in our schools, our rivers, and our tap water. Those of you who live in gentrifying neighbourhoods aren’t immune either - breakneck construction has caused lead-poisoned soil to resurface in Fishtown and Kensington, causing poisoning amongst residents.

Lead poisoning can be lethal. Even in non-fatal cases, lead poisoning can cause developmental delays, abdominal pain, neurologic changes, and irritability. Even the vanishingly small chance that you’ve not been exposed to lead doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve not been affected. There is evidence that the sudden drop in crime in the early 1990s - at exactly the tipping point when most politicians expected crime to go up and up and up - is related to the Clean Air Act’s removal of lead from gasoline and hence the atmosphere nearly twenty years before. As a new cohort of children hit adolescence, they were behaving in less anti-social ways, and ultimately committing less crime.

How do we fix it? Philadelphia’s done some things, but arguably not enough. It’s enforced a new law to prevent childhood lead poisoning before it begins, and Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf is trying to eliminate lead from public schools from the proceeds of a proposed tax on natural gas extraction. But these plans aren’t ambitious enough.

The Philadelphia Green New Deal is coming from a place that says: we can tackle lead poisoning and climate change and Philadelphia’s murderous inequality, all at the same time. We say, you can retrofit Philly’s city buildings and houses and schools to keep children safe and more energy efficient. You can ensure that this important work is compensated accordingly by ensuring that the jobs created are living-wage union jobs and prioritizing returning citizens.

We can prevent lead poisoning before it happens, and we can - we must - extend healthcare and nutritional assistance to children and adults who’ve already been exposed to lead, to correct the worst effects of lead exposure. We can prevent lead-poisoned soil from resurfacing in our neighbourhoods if we stop enabling the breakneck gentrification of Philadelphia and end the 10-year tax abatement. We can remediate contaminated soil by using organic removal methods and not just carting away poisoned soil and dumping it in a landfill somewhere.

Ambitious? Sure. It will take an ambitious plan to meet the scale of the problem we’re facing (a common theme in environmental justice!) It will take all of us - teachers, students, parents, returning citizens, workers - working together to solve this problem, and all the problems we face.