Little street urchins playing in the dust and the dirt are often pitied for their poverty and the squalor of their slum surroundings.
Now, public health studies are adding horrible dimensions to the dangers of that dust and the dirt which swirl or float around urban neighborhoods. These dangers are lead, asbestos and other kinds of lethal contaminants flowing from the works of industry and commerce. Recent studies by public health specialists of little children are documenting alarmingly high levels of lead, much of which comes from auto emissions.
Lead poisoning leads to anemia, nerve damage, and mental and physical retardation, among a string of disabilities. Children who eat dirt and other inedible objects (often due to a medical condition called pica) are the most likely victims of serious lead poisoning.
Meanwhile, at the same time reports from New York City show dangerously high concentrations of lead in dirt and dust on the sidewalks, companies have been in court fighting the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which wants to remove lead from gasoline.
In Washington, D. C., the EPA sampled roadway dust and found extremely high amounts of asbestos fibers — 10 million fibers per ounce — mostly from automobile brake linings.
If ingested by humans as they breathe, these non-degradable fibers can cause lung disease and abdominal cancer.
At the Bethesda Naval Medical Center, radiologists have found scars on lung tissues of people like those found in asbestos workers. These people, however, did not work with asbestos. Like millions of urban Americans, they just breathed city air containing asbestos.
In Toronto, Canada, three years ago, health authorities found staggering blood lead levels in children. The Toronto Globe and Mail reported “an endless round of blood tests, soil sampling, air monitoring, rushing children and adults to hospitals.
A slaughterhouse located near a Toronto smelting plant was found to be showered with high levels of lead in dust. Carcasses of hogs and cattle in the slaughterhouse were exposed to this dust.
And so in one place after another, the reports cause grave concern but little action. Concern is for the victims; action would have to be against the corporations. Against such economic and political power, even the acquisition of knowledge is given short shrift.
The famous biologist, Dr. Rene Dubos, has said that over two-thirds of the urban pollutants are not even looked for, not to mention measured, in the environment.
The companies do not care to do such research about their own products. About five years ago I inquired of the tire companies about any research they had done regarding tiny tire particles getting into people’s lungs from the wear on hundreds of millions of tires. They said they knew of no such research by anyone.
Nor have the auto companies issued any studies about asbestos pollution from their automobiles. If no effort is made by either business or government to find out about these delayed time bombs of cancer, emphysema and other pollution-bred diseases, how are substitute materials or other precautions ever going to be adopted?
What also is disturbing is the delay in pinpointing the widespread exposure to obvious pollution hazards. Only in recent months are office workers in this country learning about high levels of asbestos fibers in office buildings constructed between 1958 and 1970 when asbestos was used as fire-retarding wrapping for steel beams.
These are asbestos levels in the air which, according to Mt. Sinai school of medicine specialists, can cause cancer. Yale and UCLA have removed these asbestos coatings from two buildings on campus. What about the tens of thousands of other buildings in the country?
It is easy for people to become fatalistic when confronted with such seemingly hopeless conditions. But there is no surer way to mass fatalities than mass fatalism.
Look at it another way: cleaning up our polluted environment represents the hest job and economic development program around.
The funds and the technology are available if directly, then from other wasteful or corrupt uses of the taxpayers’ money. Certainly a society which spends over $10 billion a year on cosmetics can afford to apply known solutions to prevent known diseases.
It must be done, paraphrasing Margaret Mead, if not for ourselves, then for our more vulnerable little children.