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September 26, 2020

Koster column: Can we learn from our past mistakes?

By Francis Koster

As a school kid, if I tried and failed at something important to me my dad would usually say “so, what have you learned from this?”  I could share some examples, but I will not, thank you very much.

If I made the same kind of mistake twice, I assured him I did not need to be reminded of it.  Now I am not so sure.

As I grew older, I began to realize that making the same mistake over and over was not just a personal problem — countries also repeat mistakes.

One good example of our society making the same kind of mistake over again can be seen in our failure to remove lead from drinking water and paint where we live, work, and send our kids to school.

The use of lead in plumbing and paint became common around 1900.  Children began to eat lead paint flakes and drink lead-contaminated water, and suffer lifelong damage to their brains from it. As the understanding of the cause and effect of lead on brains grew, the doctors started pushing for the removal of lead from paint and plumbing around 1920 — right about 100 years ago.

During World War II, less than half of all homes in America had indoor running water or flush toilets. In the post-war housing boom, the rising numbers of homes connected to lead pipes and the use of lead based paint increased greatly and resulted in more and more children admitted to hospitals for spasms and mental problems linked to high levels of lead in their bodies.

By the mid-1950s, scientists published hundreds of reports demonstrating where the brain damage was coming from and how to stop it. Doctors and concerned parents started movements to stop the use of lead in paint and plumbing.

In response, industries that felt their profits were threatened by such regulations pushed back. The plumbing and paint industries formed lobbying groups that were quite successful in stalling or reducing regulation for many decades.

Four years ago, 5,300 water systems in America were found to be in violation of safe lead standards. In 2019, testing in Newark, N.J., showed one out of every five water samples taken had lead levels above the federal standard. Even today, only seven states require any form of lead testing in school drinking water.  North Carolina is not one of them. The Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that about one-third of all homes (mostly built before 1978) still contain paint with lead in it, which flakes off and can be eaten by children.

Over half a million living children in America today have dangerous levels of lead in their bodies. 

The healthcare and associated cost to citizens over decades has been astronomical.  As a nation, we failed. Can we learn from this?

In the 1960s, scientists began to understand the role of what we now call “greenhouse gases,” that trap heat around the surface of the earth, much like a car with dark color paint overheats in the summer sun.  In the 1970s, international conferences began to spread the alarm, more and more scientists began to look at the issue, and a scientific consensus developed that it is real, and urgent.

The last five years global average temperatures all rank in the top five in recorded history. During the 12 months ending in July 2019, the United States set a new record of 37.86 inches precipitation — almost 8 inches above the historic average.  And California is being destroyed by drought caused fires because some parts of our country get too much rain, and others not enough.

Right around 70% of all Americans think climate change is real, and that intervention is needed, but in the past three years several dozen regulations put in place over the past 30 years have been rolled back or removed.

Now that I am a grandfather, I feel it is my responsibility to ask what have we learned from our nation’s lead pollution failure, and how do those lessons get applied to climate change.

Start by listening to the scientists — not the politicians.  Worry about your kid’s future, not your own.  Replace all your light bulbs with LEDs, wrap your water heater in insulation, plant shade trees, and help elected officials regulate and make  industry pay for greenhouse gas pollution.  Unlike the lead pollution issue, we do not have a hundred years to solve this one — the crisis is coming too fast.

Francis Koster lives in Kannapolis and is an activist who has been studying, teaching and implementing local solutions to national problems for over 50 years. Contact him at fkoster@thepollutiondetectives.org.

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