Kevin Drum

Lead and Race In Flint—And Everywhere Else

| Sat Jan. 30, 2016 10:06 PM EST

Marcy Wheeler comments today on the lead disaster in Flint: "Think about how effects of lead poisoning feeds the stereotypes about race and class used to disdain the poor."

Yep. Lead poisoning is equally bad for everyone, but certain groups were far more exposed to lead poisoning than others. Here's a chart showing the percentage of children who displayed elevated blood lead levels over the past four decades. The data is taken from various studies over the years that have reported data from the CDC's long-running NHANES program:

All the rest of the data on lead poisoning is exactly what you'd expect. Not only is it higher among blacks than whites, but it's higher in inner cities and it's higher among low-income families. And of course, this is on top of all the social problems these kids already have from being black, poor, and living in rundown neighborhoods.

Needless to say, lead didn't cause institutional racism. But lead sure made it worse. White children were severely affected by the postwar lead epidemic, but it produced nothing less than carnage among black kids. Before we finally got it under control in the late 80s, lead poisoning had created nearly an entire generation of black teenagers with lower IQs, more behavioral problems in school, and higher rates of violent behavior—which, as Wheeler says, feeds into already vicious stereotypes of African-Americans and the poor. The only good news is that as lead poisoning has declined, it's declined in blacks more than among whites. The difference today between black and white kids is fairly modest.

But what about Flint? The big problem with lead is that it does its damage in children, and once the damage is done the brain never recovers. We're seeing lower levels of violent crime today because most crime is committed between the ages of 17-25—and that age cohort was all born after 1990, when atmospheric lead had dropped close to zero. But the effects of lead continue to dog people in their 40s and 50s. Once it's there, it's there.

This is what makes Flint so scary: if elevated lead levels damage young children, they'll be damaged forever. So how much damage was actually done? And how much damage is still being done?

Those are hard questions to answer for two reasons. First, we don't have as much hard data as we'd like. Second, lead is a horror show. Nobody wants to say anything that quantifies the damage and runs the risk of minimizing it. Public health experts are dead serious when they say the only safe level of lead is zero. Because of this, they simply don't want to publicly declare that any specific rise in elevated blood lead levels is...is...anything. I don't want to say it either. It's just bad, full stop, and it needs to be fixed.

That means I was surprised to see this in the New York Times today:

“Our kids are already rattled by every kind of toxic stress you can think of,” Dr. [Mona] Hanna-Attisha said....She emphasized, however, that not every child exposed to lead would suffer ill effects. Kim Dietrich, a professor of environmental health at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, said that based partly on the blood lead levels of children in Dr. Hanna-Attisha’s study, he did not think serious long-term health problems would be widespread.

I've spoken with Dietrich, and he's not a guy who takes the effects of lead lightly. If he says the long-term effects in Flint are likely to be modest, I'd pay attention to him.

But why would the effects be modest? Three reasons. First, lead levels in Flint were elevated for about 18 months. That's a long time, but it's a lot less than having elevated levels for your entire childhood up to age five. Second, the use of filters and bottled water helped reduce the lead levels in the drinking water. And that in turn means that, third, the rise in kids with blood lead levels above 10 m/d was less than one percentage point—and the rise was less than three percentage points even if you use the more conservative level of 5 m/d. As recently as 2008, the levels seen during the Flint water crisis would have been cause for celebration.

And what about now? Data here is frustratingly hard to get. Marc Edwards, the water-treatment expert who first blew the whistle on Flint's water supply, says that (a) Flint's pipes are probably back in satisfactory shape now that water has been coming from Detroit for the past three months and is being properly treated, (b) the water is "much, much better than it was last August," and (c) there's a 50-50 chance it could even pass a full-bore federal testing regime. Beyond that, preliminary state data suggests that blood lead levels in children are now down to about where they were before the water crisis. That's good news, but it's tentative.

More recently, the US Public Health Service announced that 26 out of 4,000 water samples in Flint had lead levels above 150 parts per billion. This is important because above that level it's possible that filters won't work effectively. But it doesn't really tell us much about current lead levels in Flint's water. We can say that 99.4 percent of homes have levels below 150 ppb and are probably safe if the water is filtered. But how many are below the EPA "action level" of 15 ppb? And what's the "90th percentile" lead level, the standard way of measuring lead in tap water? We don't know any of that, even though 4,000 samples is enough to give us a pretty good idea. Overall, Flint's water is obviously much improved, but it's hard to say precisely how good or bad it still is.

Put this all together and what do we get? Several educated guesses:

  • At a public services level, the Flint water crisis was an unbelievable fiasco.
  • The long-term damage to Flint's kids is very real, but probably not catastrophic.
  • The water today appears to be safe in nearly all homes that use a filter.
  • However, there are also a small number of homes with astronomical lead levels in their water. It's unclear why, but these homes need to be the target of immediate crash remediation.

If anything positive comes out of the Flint debacle, it will be a better understanding of the dangers of lead. Ironically, though, it's not lead pipes that are really the biggest problem nationwide. Thousands of towns and cities have old lead pipes, and they generally don't cause any problems except when some bonehead decides to stop treating the water properly and the scale inside the pipes corrodes away. Rather, the biggest problems now are lead paint and lead in soil. Everyone knows about lead paint, and abatement programs are widely available. But lead in soil, the product of decades of leaded gasoline settling to the ground, just sits around forever and gets kicked back into the air every summer when the soil dries up. It remains a serious problem, and not surprisingly, it's most serious in heavily black, urban neighborhoods that had the highest levels of lead poisoning in the first place. You can read more about this in my piece about lead and crime (scroll to the bottom) or in this recent Vox piece by Matt Yglesias specifically about lead in soil.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

How Donald Trump Could Become President, In 10 Words

| Sat Jan. 30, 2016 10:58 AM EST

Over at Vox, David Roberts writes 2,000 words explaining why Donald Trump will never become president. He makes some good points, but I think he misses some important issues that call his argument into question. Here's my rebuttal outlining how Trump could win in November:

The economy dips into recession and workers' incomes start falling. The end.

Hey, Have You Heard About the Top Secret US Drone Program?

| Fri Jan. 29, 2016 7:53 PM EST

Via the AP, here's the latest on Hillary Clinton's email woes:

The Obama administration confirmed for the first time Friday that Hillary Clinton's unsecured home server contained some of the U.S. government's most closely guarded secrets, censoring 22 emails with material demanding one of the highest levels of classification....The 37 pages include messages recently described by a key intelligence official as concerning so-called "special access programs" — a highly restricted subset of classified material that could point to confidential sources or clandestine programs like drone strikes or government eavesdropping.

Special access programs are the most secret of all secrets, so this sounds bad. But wait. What's this business about drone strikes? That's not much of a secret, is it? Maybe you need a refresher on all this, so let's rewind the Wayback Machine to last August, when we first heard about top secret emails on Clinton's server that turned out to be about drone strikes:

The drone exchange, the officials said, begins with a copy of a news article about the CIA drone program that targets terrorists in Pakistan and elsewhere. While that program is technically top secret, it is well-known and often reported on....The copy makes reference to classified information, and a Clinton adviser follows up by dancing around a top secret in a way that could possibly be inferred as confirmation, the officials said.

Hmmm. A news article? Here's a Politico piece from a couple of weeks ago, when we heard that the inspector general's office was concerned about some of Clinton's emails. Politico's source is a "US official":

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said some or all of the emails deemed to implicate “special access programs” related to U.S. drone strikes....The information in the emails “was not obtained through a classified product, but is considered ‘per se’ classified” because it pertains to drones, the official added....The source noted that the intelligence community considers information about classified operations to be classified even if it appears in news reports or is apparent to eyewitnesses on the ground.

OK then: the emails in question discuss a news article containing information that's widely-known but nonetheless top secret because...um, why not? Here's more from Ken Dilanian, formerly of the AP and now with NBC News:

The classified material included in the latest batch of Hillary Clinton emails flagged by an internal watchdog involved discussions of CIA drone strikes, which are among the worst kept secrets in Washington, senior U.S. officials briefed on the matter tell NBC News. The officials say the emails included relatively "innocuous" conversations by State Department officials about the CIA drone program.

So what do you suppose the "closely guarded secrets" in the latest batch of 22 emails are? Drones? That's a pretty good guess. Most likely, this all started with someone sending around a news article about the drone program in Pakistan or Yemen, and then several other people chiming in. It wasn't classified at the time, and most likely contains nothing even remotely sensitive—but the CIA now insists on classifying it retroactively. That's why Clinton's spokesperson calls this "classification run amok" and says, once again, that they'll seek to have all these emails released to the public.

Of course, this could just be a clever ruse on Clinton's part, because she knows the emails will never see the light of day. But there are other people who have seen the emails. How have they reacted? Well, nobody on the Republican side has leaked or even "characterized" any of them, and nobody on the Democratic side has withdrawn their endorsement of Clinton. This suggests pretty strongly that this whole thing is, indeed, just a stupid bit of interagency squabbling.

Friday Cat Blogging - 29 January 2016

| Fri Jan. 29, 2016 3:00 PM EST

Behold the mighty hunter. Today Hopper is stalking the elusive camera strap as it slinks quietly away, guided by its giant eye and human protector. But it was no match. Seconds after this picture was taken, it fell to the swift reflexes and awesome claws of Felis catus.

And speaking of hunting, Hopper has a new favorite game. She has discovered that she can bat toys from the upstairs balcony down to the first floor and then run downstairs to swat them around. Sometimes she carries them upstairs herself and then knocks them down, other times I toss them up and she goes tearing after them. I'm not sure how long this game is going to last, but she hasn't gotten tired of it yet.

How Many Molars Do You Need, Anyway?

| Fri Jan. 29, 2016 2:24 PM EST

A few years ago I was at a party in Newport Beach and found myself buttonholed by an elderly dentist who had a real thing for wisdom teeth. He talked my ear off about how the dental profession removed way too many wisdom teeth unnecessarily even though most of them don't do any harm. I didn't know anyone else at the party, so I didn't really mind listening, and by the time he ran down I had to admit that he seemed surprisingly convincing. I didn't have any personal stake in this since my wisdom teeth were removed long ago,1 but he seemed to make a pretty good case. Then I left the party and forgot about it.

Anyway, the guy's name was Jay Friedman, and it turns out that he is to wisdom teeth—aka third molars—what I am to lead poisoning and crime. I had no idea at the time. But if you're curious to read more about this, Rob Wile has you covered. It's worth noting that lots of dentists think Friedman is full of crap, but it's also worth noting that apparently more of them are coming around to a somewhat more cautious view of the whole thing. Bottom line: You might want to think twice if your dentist tells you to get your wisdom teeth removed just as a precaution.

1I wasn't having any particular problems. One of them was slightly impacted, and my dentist figured I might as well get them all taken out. I shrugged and said fine. Nor did I have any problems: a little bit of pain, but not much, and a day or two of eating pudding. I couldn't figure out why people make such a big deal out of it. I guess some of you had it a lot worse, didn't you?

A Cable Host Explains Why They Covered Donald Trump's Publicity Stunt Last Night

| Fri Jan. 29, 2016 1:02 PM EST

Last night I griped about the endless news coverage Donald Trump got for a political stunt that obviously had no purpose except to get endless news coverage. A few minutes ago, MSNBC host Chris Hayes and Jim Tankersley of the Washington Post had a Twitter conversation about this:

Hayes:

this is not very complicated.

there are 3 cable networks competing for viewers. 1 had a debate that will draw millions and millions of viewers. Other 2 have to figure out how to best compete with that. Usually there's nothing to do but be crushed. And then: boom! A competing event to cover

obviously this hits home to me, but people outside of this industry *vastly* underestimate a) the competitive pressure and b) the appetite for spectacle, theatrics, etc...

Tankersley:

This wud be more convincing if CNN/MSNBC didn't show so much Trump at all other times.

On Wed, CNN gave Trump 70 percent of all its candidate coverage. That includes both Ds & Rs.

I report, you decide.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Economic Growth Slows to 0.7 Percent in Q4

| Fri Jan. 29, 2016 12:37 PM EST

Yuck. The US economy slowed down a lot in the fourth quarter of last year. GDP growth clocked in at a hair less than 0.7 percent:

For the year, GDP increased 2.4 percent, which is pretty much what it's been for the past six years. So overall, this isn't crushingly bad news. It just means the economy continues to putter along without really building up any steam. That's better than Europe or China can say. Still, in the fourth quarter growth slowed, income growth slowed, and inflation was close to zero. And, as we all know, the stock market has been tanking lately. It's sure not looking like it was a great idea to start raising interest rates—and if the Chinese economy goes south, it's really not going to look like it was a great idea to start raising interest rates.

Naturally we want a political spin on all this, and that's pretty easy: If this is just a blip, and growth returns over the next two quarters, then the presidential contest will remain a close-run thing. But if the economy flags badly for the next couple of quarters, Democrats are going to have a very, very hard time holding onto the White House. Are you ready for President Trump?

Three Things I'm Still Waiting For

| Fri Jan. 29, 2016 11:56 AM EST
  1. Donald Trump's new corporate policy allowing unrestricted carry at his golf resorts.
  2. A look at the "very nice place" where Trump keeps all the Bibles that people send him.
  3. A list of the "25 different stories" documenting his pre-invasion opposition to the Iraq War.

Pentagon Wants a Few More Troops to Fight ISIS

| Fri Jan. 29, 2016 11:32 AM EST

The Pentagon wants more troops for the fight against ISIS:

Pentagon officials have concluded that hundreds more trainers, advisers and commandos from the United States and its allies will need to be sent to Iraq and Syria in the coming months as the campaign to isolate the Islamic State intensifies.

....With the liberation of the Iraqi city of Ramadi last month, coupled with recent gains in northern Syria, senior military leaders say that the war effort can now focus on isolating — and then liberating — the Islamic State-held cities of Mosul in Iraq, and Raqqa in Syria. “The reason we need new trainers or additional trainers is because that’s really the next step in generating the amount of combat power needed to liberate Mosul,” Col. Steve Warren, the spokesman for the American military in Baghdad, said last week. “We know we will need more brigades to be trained, we’ll need more troops trained in more specialties.”

....The United States has had little success in persuading allies to provide more troops. But Mr. Carter and General Dunford do not want the United States to be the only source of more forces. With ISIS posing a threat to European countries, they are trying again.

I will note a couple of things. First, the Pentagon didn't call for carpet bombing of ISIS strongholds. Perhaps they know something that Ted Cruz doesn't? Second, the US has tried repeatedly to get more support from our allies, including those in the Middle East, and gotten nowhere. Some of them are willing to contribute a little bit of air power, but that's it. None of them have any interest in providing troops. But perhaps Ted Cruz knows the magic words to change their minds.

Last night Cruz said his enthusiasm for carpet bombing wasn't just tough talk. "It is a different, fundamental military strategy than what we've seen from Barack Obama." Uh huh. In reality, it's as much a "strategy" as Donald Trump's call to "bomb the shit out of them." It's nothing more than big talk with nothing behind it. The Pentagon has no interest in this because they know it would be useless. They have a hard time finding enough worthwhile targets as it is.

However, there's something that hasn't gotten enough attention in all this: Cruz and Trump really have tapped into Ronald Reagan's military spirit, and I'm surprised the rest of the field hasn't figured this out. Reagan basically talked tough and spent a lot of money, but shied away from foreign interventions. The invasion of Grenada and his support for the Contras were small things that never risked any US troops. He pulled out of Beirut when things got tough there, never committed any troops to Afghanistan, negotiated with the Iranians, and to the horror of neocons everywhere, nearly concluded an arms deal with Gorbachev in Reykjavík that would have banned all ballistic missiles.

This is what Cruz and Trump are doing. They talk tough and promise to spend a lot of money, but both of them explicitly want to avoid much in the way of serious intervention overseas. And this is popular. It's what a lot of conservatives want. If the rest of the world wants to go to hell, let them go to hell in their own way. Bill Kristol is appalled, I'm sure, but his brand of endless intervention has never really caught on—and after Iraq and Afghanistan it's even less popular than ever. Cruz and Trump have figured this out.

My Non-Debate Wrap-Up

| Fri Jan. 29, 2016 12:05 AM EST

I may have missed most of the debate, but I did manage to catch the pre-debate festivities. What a horror show. Everybody knew exactly what Donald Trump wanted, and they gave it to him anyway. I flipped over to CNN and Brianna Keilar was interviewing Trump in his plane and letting him walk all over her. She throws him a softball about Fox so that Trump has an opportunity to announce that "someone" at Fox called to apologize to him. She asks him about his past support for abortion and he baldly changes the subject, basically daring Keilar to try to get an answer out of him—so she shrugs and moves on. I switch to MSNBC and they're split-screening with the Trump event. Switch back to CNN and now they're split-screening too. Switch to Fox and the very first question of the debate is, "Senator Cruz, do you have any zingers about Donald Trump you'd like to share with us?"

Curtis Houck informs us that the network evening news shows spent 10 minutes on the Trump boycott and less than two minutes on the actual debate. ABC News tells us that Trump was mentioned 11 times in the first 30 minutes of the debate. For the past two days Trump's boycott has been practically all anyone could talk about.

I know, I know: he's the frontrunner, we have to cover him, yada yada yada. But there's something pathological going on here. It's as if the press corps is a bunch of eight-year-olds tugging on daddy's arm begging for his approval. Trump refuses to answer any of their questions, but they don't press him because he might get mad and stop talking to them. He lies to their faces and they just move on. He puts on an obviously fake "veterans" event designed to show that he's the alpha chimp, and everyone rushes to cover it.

What the hell is going on? Seriously. What does everyone find so damn fascinating about the guy?