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One Bay Area neighborhood has more lead exposure than Flint, Michigan

The most alarming lead levels in the Bay Area are in Fruitvale and surrounding neighborhoods

Workers in hazmat suits stripping lead paint from the side of a house.
Painters dealing with old, lead-based paint must take precautions. (Note that this photo was not taken in the Bay Area.)
Jamie Hooper

Earlier this year, the nation was shocked and horrified by the disregard for public health in the city of Flint, Michigan, where elected official allegedly turned a blind eye to water supplies so tainted by lead that the tap water turned rust-brown.

But now Reuters has finished a comprehensive study of public health data in 21 states and found many U.S. counties and ZIP codes where even more children have tested for dangerously high lead levels in their bodies. Including in the Bay Area.

“Flint is no aberration,” the news agency writes. “In fact, it doesn’t even rank among the most dangerous lead hotspots in America.”

In Flint, five percent of children screened citywide showed blood lead levels higher than the CDC-prescribed threshold (5 micrograms per deciliter).

Now consider screenings that showed a rate of 4.4 percent among 500 kids screened in the Mission in 2012. Not Flint levels, but certainly much higher than anyone would like.

In Bayview and Hunters Point, a separate screening of 500 revealed a rate of 3.44 percent. Tests in the southern-lying 94112 and 94134 ZIP codes yielded rates of about two percent.

Photo by Thester11/Wikimedia Commons

But the most alarming thing may be that for the rest of the city there’s simply no recent data at all. The CDC has a limited budget for lead screenings, and most neighborhoods go unchecked.

As far as the data available tells us, the most alarming lead levels in the Bay Area lie in Oakland’s 94601 ZIP code, covering Fruitvale and surrounding neighborhoods.

The rate there among 500 children tested: more than 7.5 percent. Worse than Flint.

A few caveats do apply to that statement: One, although Flint has a citywide average screening rate of five percent, its hardest hit neighborhoods see rate soar as high as 11 percent.

No area tested in Oakland or any other Bay Area city suffer anywhere near that level of evident toxicity.

Note also that elevated levels don’t necessarily indicate by how much local populations have blown the threshold; the data we have today diagnoses the problem, but not its severity.

Eric Frederick

Still, even with all that considered, the figures we see here warrant attention—and alarm.

Long-term exposure to dangerous lead levels may cause everything from anemia to sterility to learning disabilities.

Children are of course particularly vulnerable, and the CDC warns that when it comes to young children there “there may be no threshold for developmental effects on children.” In other words, any degree of exposure is probably worrisome.

Even worse, some people may not like even hearing about the problem. Reuters points out that there’s a stigma attached to lead poisoning, both because of its effects and because it’s generally more prevalent in poor neighborhoods.

Other than industrial pollutants, the most common sources of lead exposure are of course our homes, with their aging pipes and paint.