house with "lead keep out" sign

Photo by Steven Depolo.

This post last week on The New York Times‘ Motherlode blog should have gotten more attention. In the federal fiscal 2013 budget, lead poisoning and prevention programs are taking a huge cut — for all intents and purposes, they’re destroyed. This is the kind of discretionary spending cut that the Obama administration had to offer up to D.C.’s austerity caucus to get a budget at all. To understand how dumb it is, you have to know something about the history of lead.

The elimination of lead from gasoline is a paradigmatic triumph of American environmentalism. A danger to health was discovered by scientists. Public-health advocates and greens pushed and pushed for decades, often futilely, to get the government to take action. When EPA finally cranked up efforts to do something about it, the agency was viciously attacked. Industry shills said it was an agenda to control Americans’ lives, driven by scientists who wanted research money and a cabal of extreme environmentalists. They said there were no viable alternatives to lead and the regulations would raise gas prices and destroy the economy. They paid their own scientists to produce counter-evidence. They flooded politicians with money. Over time, EPA weathered the assault and put standards into place — a “phasedown” program in 1973, followed by stronger standards in 1982, 1985, and 1995.

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Since then, scientists have discovered that lead is far more harmful than originally suspected. Implementing the standards was cheaper than anyone, even advocates, had projected, and the effects greater and more beneficial. Now lead has been removed from gasoline virtually worldwide. (For some background on all this, see The Nation‘s magisterial “The Secret History of Lead.”)

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When I say getting lead out of gas turned out better than anyone expected, I mean lots better. Millions of children were spared from the effects of toxic lead exposure, leading to fewer cognitive impairments and less violence. A 2007 study [PDF] by economist Jessica Wolpaw Reyes found that the reduction of lead in the blood of American children is responsible for as much as half of the massive drop in U.S. crime in the 1990s. The learning, achievement, and labor of all those healthier children (an effect that’s still rippling onward through generations) are incalculable.

An interesting side note: Scholars Lisa Heinzerling, Frank Ackerman, and Rachel Massey argue in this paper [PDF] that “requiring a positive cost-benefit analysis before adopting regulations, as currently advocated, would have prevented some of the great policy successes of the past decades,” including the elimination of lead from gas. The original 1970s standards were implemented “on a precautionary basis without reliance on cost-benefit analysis.” In fact, it took the rules being implemented in the ’70s and early ’80s to produce enough data to do a cost-benefit analysis. (EPA finally had a massive analysis [PDF] done in 1985.) If the lead rules had been forced to wait on a conventional cost-benefit analysis, they might never have happened.

Anyway, regardless, the analysis has been done; lead remediation is still a screamingly good deal. Lead remains one of the most common and harmful pollutants in the country; it’s often present in old paint and settles into soil, particularly in urban areas. One comprehensive study concluded that “each dollar invested in lead paint hazard control results in a return of $17–$221.” And that study focused on current, laborious methods of lead remediation. As it happens, scientists have developed a new, cheaper method — mixing fish bones into soil (!) — to absorb lead and render it nontoxic. Pretty cool stuff. Imagine what more research and funding could do.

Instead, federal funding for lead-poisoning prevention programs has been brutally slashed:

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The funding for the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (C.D.C.) for its lead poisoning and prevention programs (combined with asthma control in the “Healthy Homes and Lead Poisoning Prevention Program”) was cut from $29 million to $2 million for the 2013 fiscal year. What that means, says Rebecca Morley, executive director of the National Center for Healthy Housing, is that “the programs that states run to prevent lead poisoning and to respond to children with elevated blood levels will be eliminated.”

This is what austerity looks like on the ground. It means we’re no longer investing in the future health and well-being of vulnerable children. $27 million means absolutely nothing for future interest rates, inflation, or debt. It’s an empty gesture toward “fiscal responsibility” to please a decadent elite.

Meanwhile, more kids will be sick or cognitively impaired. They’ll fall short of their potential. Society will get less from them — their imagination, their ambition, and their work. We’ll end up paying more for their physical and mental care in the long run.

Even when we get it right, we never seem to learn.