Is Freddie Gray Dead Because of Lead?

Indictments are nice, but institutional change is necessary. That’s the message bellowing out of Baltimore. Even as she announced charges against six officers in the death of Freddie Gray, State Attorney Marilyn Mosby called for “structural and system changes.”

Indictments are nice, but institutional change is necessary. That’s the message bellowing out of Baltimore. Even as she announced charges against six officers in the death of Freddie Gray, State Attorney Marilyn Mosby called for “structural and system changes.”

Why focus on the structural when there’s a homicide to prosecute? Here’s a case in point. It doesn’t get more structural than bricks and mortar and that’s at least part of where Gray’s troubles started: with lead poisoning. Gray and his sisters grew up in a house with lead paint peeling off the walls. At 22 months old Gray’s blood contained almost eight times the level the CDC says can be dangerous. All the kids had trouble in school. Gray never graduated, and sadly that's no surprise. Studies have shown that children poisoned with lead are six times more likely to drop out of school and seven times more likely to end up in the juvenile justice system.

Is Gray dead because of lead? No, but the same systems of power and racial ranking that got him killed put him and his sisters in particular danger. Scientists have known for years that lead is poisonous. At high concentrations, it can kill, but even trace levels affect the development of children. And yet the US almost half a century behind other countries in banning lead in paint – why? Ask the powerful Lead Industries Association which thwarted public health efforts. Public health paid for private profits and African Americans paid most highly. At the time of the ban, a national survey found that black children were six times more likely to have elevated lead than whites.

As if that wasn’t enough, in the 1990s as Gray was growing up, a Johns Hopkins study in Baltimore enrolled slumlords to move poor families into homes where kids were exposed to levels of lead known to cause permanent damage – for the sake of science. Those families weren’t wealthy whites. Nor was this the first time black lives were sacrificed for (white) “public” health research.

Written up in the book Lead Wars, the Johns Hopkins lead study was compared to the Tuskegee experiment in which hundreds of black men with syphilis were denied life saving penicillin for decades, also for research purposes.

There’s a reason the Black Panthers community health clinics conducted lead screenings. Gray’s poisoning wasn’t personal. It was political. And structural. And needs changing.