Lead-based materials were used for many years in American homes until health officials warned about the risks of lead exposure. Lead paint continued to be used in homes until it was banned in the 1970s.
Even though it is now illegal to use lead-based materials when constructing new homes and buildings, there are still millions of American homes that were built before the ban. These homes face higher lead exposure risks than new homes.
An added layer to this story is that statistically, the United States sees a higher level of lead exposure in racial minorities and poverty-stricken families. To further understand the correlation between lead exposure and housing inequality, read on to learn about the situation and what can be done to help.
What is Housing Inequality?
To understand the correlation between lead exposure and housing inequality, we must first dive into what housing inequality is. Housing inequality is a disparity in the quality of housing, which is a form of economic discrimination.
Housing inequality can affect people in different geographic areas, in certain generations, or with particular racial or social backgrounds. Housing inequality is the direct result of discrimination and segregation. No matter how much progress the world seems to make in terms of equality, there are still many inequalities ingrained into the housing market.
There are many historical causes of housing inequality, both past and present. Historically, housing is more expensive the closer it is to employment opportunities. Low-income families often do not have the means to pay for transportation required to get to a job from outside the area.
Because of this, many low-income families have historically needed to find housing near worksites. The only affordable housing in expensive, inner-city areas is often low-quality, small, and run-down.
Another historical cause relating to housing inequality is racial discrimination. Through America’s history of enslaving African Americans to Jim Crow segregation laws, many Black and Latino households were outwardly forced out of majority-white neighborhoods. It wasn’t until the Fair Housing Act was passed as a part of The Civil Rights Act of 1968 that it became unlawful for a landlord to discriminate against a potential tenant based on race, religion, nationality, or gender.
Even still, after the passing of the Fair Housing Act, housing discrimination still occurs today. Common instances of housing inequality seen today are:
- Building public housing in crowded, inner-city, minority neighborhoods
- Racial bias in home appraisals
- Preference for white applicants over Black or Latino applicants
- Low-income families placed in units that are not up-to-code
- Black and Latino families are shown fewer, lower-quality units
- Purposeful neglect of service needs for racial minorities or low-income tenants
Even though the United States sees less segregation today than before The Civil Rights Act of 1968 was passed, many of the historical implications still affect housing today. Many previously segregated neighborhoods and zip codes have remained that way to this day because of zoning changes.
Another effect of housing inequality is environmental racism. Environmental racism is defined by communities of color disproportionately suffering from exposure to toxins and other health risks. Any racial group living below the poverty line can experience these health risks. Environmental racism comes into play when the following risks appear in housing:
- Lead exposure
- Pests such as rats and other rodents
- Air pollution
- Mold and mildew
What Are the Effects of Lead Poisoning?
Lead exposure is one of the health risks that appears in low-quality housing. If there is a presence of lead in older housing structures, a person could absorb lead topically, orally, or by inhaling it. If a person accumulates high levels of lead in their body, certain symptoms of lead poisoning can appear.
The most common symptoms of lead poisoning include:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Weight loss
- Severe mood swings
- Pregnancy complications
- High blood pressure
- Memory loss
- Developmental delays
If these symptoms go ignored, lead poisoning can result in severe illness and even death. Young children are at a higher risk for lead poisoning because they often put foreign objects in their mouths. The older the home, the higher the risk for lead exposure.
Is Lead Exposure a Form of Housing Inequality?
It is clear through many studies over the years that lead poisoning is dangerous, and it occurs most frequently in low-income and minority households. According to a study performed by Harvard University in Chicago, predominately black neighborhoods consistently exhibit the highest rates of elevated lead levels in the blood. Predominately white neighborhoods exhibited the lowest rates, with Hispanic neighborhoods falling in between.
A famous example of lead exposure as an effect of housing inequality was the Flint Water Crisis that began in 2014. In Flint, Michigan, a predominately Black city where more than 40% of residents live below the poverty line, elevated lead levels were found in the water system. The lead exposure was caused because city officials did not apply corrosion inhibitors to the water sourced from the Flint River. Lead from the aging pipes infiltrated into the water supply. This contaminated water exposed close to 12,000 children to lead poisoning.
Lead exposure is a factor that helps maintain racial and income inequalities in housing. However, lead exposure can be reduced through public policy and regulations.
What Can Be Done to Help?
Local, state, and federal policymakers should pay increased attention to unequal housing conditions and increase efforts at lead abatement in minority communities. Lead abatement is a more impactful process compared to encapsulation, as lead abatement offers a long-term solution.
Organizations have been put into place at the local, state, and federal levels to help prevent lead poisoning. Every homeowner and tenant should be made aware of lead safety resources for housing.
Going forward, decreasing housing inequality and subsequent lead levels comes down to policy and city planning. Organizers and policymakers need to be bold enough to change the status quo and offer new, high-quality affordable housing and safer structures to existing minority communities.
Aiming for a Healthier, More Equal Future
The combined effects of lead poisoning and housing inequality are discouraging, but improvements can be made to create a future that is healthier and more equal. Efforts to erase lead exposure in homes and communities begin at the local level with lead certification.