This article appears in the May issue of VICE Magazine. Click HERE to subscribe.
No matter what Rashaniea Bradley did on the evening of July 12, 2015, she couldn't get her eight-month-old son, Rushaine, to stop crying.
Bradley's mother, Deborah, gave a bottle of sugar water — a family remedy used to treat persistent bouts of late-night crying. The distraught child soon drifted to sleep, but around 7:00am, while lying next to his mother in bed, he seized up like a granite statue. "His skin changed color, and his lips turned blue," the 27-year-old mother recalled. "His arms went stiff and wouldn't bend. And he stared straight ahead. He wasn't blinking."
Bradley, who lives in Trenton, New Jersey, rushed her son to a nearby hospital, and she phoned her husband, also named Rushaine, who works at an Amazon distribution center from 6:00pm to 5:30am each day. Doctors told the confused and worried mother and father that Rushaine had suffered a seizure, but they were unsure of its cause. Later that day, they transferred the boy to a hospital in nearby Hopewell, where he underwent a week of tests.
Then a New Jersey Department of Health worker called, asking if the couple would come to its offices. The couple was told that the amount of lead in Rushaine's blood was 27 micrograms per deciliter — more than five times what the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) considers excessive.
As small children are wont to do, Rushaine had a habit of putting things in his mouth. His father caught him pulling flakes of peeling paint from a radiator in their home. "I'd turn around, and he'd be eatin' the stuff," the 27-year-old from Jamaica said. He added that it would often take several minutes for brown water to clear out from the apartment's taps.
A health department inspection revealed their apartment was contaminated with lead — the walls of the kitchen, bathroom, and living room were painted floor to ceiling with lead paint. And lead levels in Trenton's drinking water are among the highest in the state. So the family, at the urging of a health worker, moved from Trenton to Burlington, New Jersey, where the elder Rushaine's father owns a house.
Sitting in the relative comfort of that home, as the younger Rushaine grasped his mother's cellphone in his tiny hands, transfixed by videos of Superman and Spider-Man, Bradley recalled what the health worker had told her at that first meeting. "She said, 'You're very lucky that you brought your boy to the doctor. He's lucky to be here because he could have gone into a coma.'" She paused, looked down at her son, who she said has been different since the incident, and added, "Ever since that night, my baby's been stuck."
Lead was banned from paint in 1978, plumbing in 1986, and gasoline in 1996. But as Rushaine's story highlights — as well as the widely publicized water crisis in Flint, Michigan — lead contamination continues to be a problem nearly two decades into the 21st century. Millions of Americans are exposed to lead every year, despite prohibitions on its use.
About 24 million homes in the US have lead paint or high levels of lead-contaminated house dust, according to the CDC. More than 4 million of those homes shelter one or more children. Windows, doorways, and other wooden surfaces made prior to 1978 frequently remain coated in lead paint, albeit often beneath layers of newer pigment or wallpaper. Drive a nail into a decades-old New Jersey wall, for example, and you're likely to produce a dusting of lead-infused paint chips, which, if you're a curious child, may appear seductively colorful — and probably taste sweet.
America's pipes are in even worse condition. Much of the nation's water infrastructure dates back to the Victorian era, when travel by streetcar overtook travel by horse. The pipes in Washington, DC, for instance, were laid during the American Civil War, when lead was used to solder sections together — the pipes themselves often coated, or wholly made, with lead, which is stronger and more malleable than steel. The US Environmental Protection Agency, which enforces the Clean Water Act, is unable to provide an estimate of the number of Americans at risk of consuming lead-contaminated water. In its most recent report card on the nation's infrastructure, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the US drinking-water system a D grade. And the American Water Works Association said last June it would cost $1 trillion over 25 years to upgrade the nation's decrepit arteries, not including the removal of lead pipes from private property. Nearly 106,000 children aged three years or younger, according to the CDC, had blood lead levels above 5 micrograms per deciliter — 5,566 of them in New Jersey.
New Jersey, the most densely populated state in the nation, has the official nickname the "Garden State," but it's also a highly toxic state. Eleven cities and two of the state's counties have higher proportions of children with elevated levels of lead than Flint, according to statistics compiled by several New Jersey nonprofits.
In 2002, tests in Camden, New Jersey, revealed that the drinking water in several of the city's schools was contaminated with lead. Nearly 15 years later, Camden students continue to get their water from coolers rather than taps or drinking fountains. As Flint's water troubles made national headlines, and became the subject of presidential debates, a Camden football team — no doubt mindful of its own city's history—organized a shipment of 100,000 water bottles to students in the troubled Michigan city.
School officials in Newark, New Jersey, announced in early March that 30 of the district's 66 schools had elevated levels of lead in their drinking-water supplies. The state tested 17,000 students for lead poisoning, and it's unclear how long district officials knew that lead levels were high. And, in April, officials in Hamilton, New Jersey, announced that they found lead in water supplies at a pair of elementary schools, which isn't all that shocking considering the city sources its water from Trenton. In Atlantic City, 23 percent of children tested for lead had excessive levels in their blood.
In the face of peaking public concern over the potential that lead was poisoning the bodies of the state's children, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie pocket vetoed $10 million in lead-control funding, calling the issue "overblown." He later approved the additional funding.
Lead is the material through which America's yawning economic inequities do their damage. And the means of contamination — the lingering presence of long-banned lead paint in homes, or aging pipelines that leach lead into drinking-water supplies — reveal systematic underdevelopment in New Jersey cities, as well as across the nation. After all, children living below the poverty line, according to the CDC, are most at risk of lead poisoning.
Twenty-eight percent of Trenton's households live below the poverty line. In Newark, it's 30 percent; in Atlantic City, 36 percent; and in Camden, 40 percent. Nationally, the poverty rate is 15 percent. In Flint, 42 percent of households are below the poverty line.
Town managers and city councils, stripped of their economic base, can devote little in the way of tax dollars to upgrade 100-year-old pipes or reimburse those few landlords who remediate lead paint from their units. And the fashionable politics of austerity means state legislatures and the US Congress stay largely indifferent — and sometimes downright hostile — to upgrading America's poorest communities.
Dr. Irwin Redlener, a professor of pediatrics at Columbia University and president of the Children's Health Fund, said America's infrastructure is in a "sorry state."
"Flint's problems with lead-contaminated water, potentially affecting thousands of children, were attributed to ill-informed policy decisions followed by what could be a criminal cover-up by the administration of Governor Rick Snyder," he said. "But it also opened up a veritable Pandora's box of communities across the US where high levels of lead in the water have undermined the health and brain development of many infants and children."
In a sense, Rushaine isn't "stuck" anymore. His limbs are no longer hardened, as they were that evening last July, frozen by traumatic seizure. But the 2-year-old, as he ambles around the Burlington living room, Superman video blaring, exhibits signs of what could be a lead-poisoning-induced disability, which very well could constrain him physically and mentally for his entire life.
State health workers conducted a Battelle Developmental Evaluation of Rushaine earlier this year. The test aims to measure a range of cognitive, motor, and behavior skills. A bell curve displays the scores — highly functional, social, and emotional results fall within the thin right-hand side of the curve; those exhibiting average characteristics somewhere in the bulbous middle; and those with mild or significant delays in responding to tests fall within the thin portion on the left-hand side.
All but one of Rushaine's scores lies in the narrow area on the left of the curve. His adaptive, communication, and cognitive abilities were each about two standard deviations from the mean. Compared with his peers, Rushaine is among 2.5 percent that were least able to perform physical, mental, and emotional tests.
Bradley said her son continues to have seizures, which she said she allows to run their course. "He shakes a lot for a few minutes," she said. "But it's not like the first time when he froze up."
Rushaine said when he calls his son's name, he often doesn't respond; when he attempts to speak with him, the 2-year-old doesn't make eye contact.
"I love him for who he is," Rushaine said. "I'll still be here for him, and I'll still help him as much as I can."
In the days after she spoke about Rushaine's lead poisoning, Bradley took her son to a neurologist and an ear, nose, and throat doctor, and she hosted a weekly visit from a state-appointed behavioral therapist.
"My son was born healthy," she said. "Then we moved to that house, and everything fell apart."
Follow Robert S. Eshelman on Twitter: @RobertSEshelman