Contaminated Childhood: How the United States Failed to Prevent the Chronic Lead Poisoning of Low-Income Children and Communities of Color

70 Pages Posted: 1 Jun 2017 Last revised: 9 Aug 2017

Emily A. Benfer

Yale Law School Solomon Center for Health Law & Policy

Date Written: May 30, 2017


Lead poisoning has plagued society for centuries, dating back to the Roman Empire. Children and adults exposed to the neurotoxin regularly experience an elevated risk for permanent brain damage, disability, and, at higher levels, death. Despite scientific evidence of the dangers of lead, the heavy metal was commonly used throughout civilization and quickly integrated into the American home in the form of paint containing up to 70% lead. At the same time, lead smelters and leaded gasoline left a toxic footprint across the United States. Today, over twenty-three million homes contain one or more lead hazards and thirty-eight million have lead-based paint that will eventually become a lead hazard if not closely monitored and maintained; the majority of those homes are located in impoverished and marginalized communities of color. Federal laws and policies have consistently failed to prevent lead poisoning in these areas, depriving low-income, minority children of equal opportunity and trapping generations in poverty. For example, federally subsidized housing programs are intended to provide safe, decent, and affordable housing for low-income families. These homes are often clustered in areas with high rates of lead poisoning and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimated in 2016 that 450,000 federally assisted housing units were built before 1978 and likely contain lead-based paint. Federal lead poisoning prevention laws take a “wait and see” approach that delays lead hazard inspections of a home until after a child is lead poisoned and does not require any inspection in private housing. Rather than requiring lead hazard risk assessments that could identify and control sources of lead poisoning before a child resides in the home, according to federal regulations, the child must develop lead poisoning at levels more than four times the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention standards before the government requires any intervention. This policy places millions of children annually at risk of permanent neurological damage. This Article describes how lead poisoning policies governing private and federally assisted housing perpetuate health inequities, increase socioeconomic and racial inequality among low-income and minority children, and thwart the promise of multiple civil rights laws and policies. It examines the legislative history of federal lead poisoning prevention laws, including compromises that resulted in ineffective laws, as well as the civil rights laws violated by the lack of primary prevention. Finally, with the aim of identifying policies that abide by principles of health justice, this Article proposes urgent reform measures to end the lead poisoning epidemic.

Keywords: Lead Poisoning, Environmental Racism, Public Health, Minority, Social Determinants of Health, Federally Assisted Housing

Suggested Citation

Benfer, Emily A., Contaminated Childhood: How the United States Failed to Prevent the Chronic Lead Poisoning of Low-Income Children and Communities of Color (May 30, 2017). Harvard Environmental Law Review, 2017. Available at SSRN:

Emily Benfer (Contact Author)

Yale Law School Solomon Center for Health Law & Policy ( email )

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