Samantha Carlisle: Environmental racism endangers Utah children

2020 has been a historical and challenging year, to say the least. As a young Utahn entering my second year of college in the midst of a pandemic and global and social upheaval, I find myself now more than ever looking critically at my nation, my state and myself.

For this reason, writing solely about lead testing and lead poisoning prevention without addressing its role in disproportionate health outcomes and environmental classism and racism frankly seems shortsighted.

While working at the non-profit organization, Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment (UPHE), I have learned much about lead poisoning in Utah. But during my time at UPHE, what has struck me as the most shocking — revealing my ignorance — is this: Before they are even born, the children of African American women have comparatively 2.2 times higher lead levels detected in the second and third trimesters of pregnancy than do whites. This stands true in the state of Utah, where racial and ethnic minority children are twice as likely to test positive for lead poisoning.

Lead-based paint, banned in 1978, remains the most widespread source of lead exposure. Traces of lead are still found in jewelry, toys, pipes and in older homes, collecting on our hands, leaching into our water and soil and forming dust that we inhale.

When children, who are especially susceptible, ingest or inhale lead, they can experience irreversible damage to their physical and cognitive development, leading to asthma, ADHD, and a lowered IQ.

Here in Utah, only 3% of children are being tested for lead. Over 88% of Utah’s population is white and primarily located in the metropolitan area of the Wasatch Front. Most simply assume (and rightly so) that our right to safe housing is being protected, that violations will be disclosed and that apartment health codes will be enforced by state agencies. In other words, most whites can take it for granted that their neighborhoods are lead safe, while thousands of minority families continue to live in hazardous conditions.

West Valley residents, 51% of whom are non-white, primarily Latinx, suffer the most from lead poisoning. In 2015, the Utah Department of Air Quality’s year-long study found lead present in particulate matter or PM2.5 — the highest recordings coming from West Valley City. Furthermore, Kennecott Copper Corporation, disproportionately harming the health of Salt Lake Valley’s westside residents, is the largest industrial contributor to our pollution and lead present in Utah’s air.

UPHE, the Utah Lead Coalition and the Salt Lake County Department of Housing and Urban Development have joined together to lessen the disproportionate impact of lead poisoning on minorities in Utah. Through the Lead Safe Housing program, they work to prevent lead exposure by removing lead hazards from people’s homes and performing lead testing for free for qualifying families, primarily those located in West Valley City, South Salt Lake and South Jordan.

How can we become better allies and advocates for societal change? If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that change occurs from the ground up. When many people work towards a common goal, the cumulative effect of their actions is powerful. We must widen our view of environmental issues in Utah to reflect the social justice movement sweeping across the country and globe.

To become better advocates and allies, we must continue to actively educate ourselves and others about issues like lead poisoning. To become better advocates and allies, we must vote for individuals who will support anti-racist environmental policy. To become better advocates and allies, we must support organizations working to mitigate the harmful and biased prevalence of lead poisoning in Utah.

Samantha Carlisle

Samantha Carlisle, a 2019 graduate of Rowland Hall and resident of Salt Lake City, is entering her sophomore year at George Washington University this fall.