catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 6, Num 4 :: 2007.02.23 — 2007.03.09


Happily (almost) ever after

Let me take a moment to introduce you to a city, a city that lies directly across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, Missouri.  This city used to be a symbol of industry and economic progress.  This city is called East St. Louis.  Back in the early 1960s, factories provided many with stable jobs and a fairly good income.  The city was bustling with a population of more than 82,000 (the highest number to date), but as the decade progressed, the city’s financial stability came to a crashing halt.  Factories began to shut down, half the population took off, crime increased, all of which left the city to crumble and unravel in on itself.  This is the part where I am supposed to say that magically the city was restored and everyone lived happily ever after.  Sadly, that has not been East St. Louis’ fate; instead the city has been forgotten and is caught in a nasty cycle of hopelessness and waste.

After the 60s and the resulting “white flight”, East St. Louis became a primarily African American city.  Most live at or below the poverty line and with no booming economy, residents are faced with a pressing issue—lead poisoning.  Years of factory emissions have collected in the soil rendering it useless and turning it into a toxic playground.  Also, most homes still have lead paint (officially banned in the United States in 1978), which forms lead dust as it decays.

Children are the main victims of this preventable condition.  East St. Louis has some of the largest numbers of lead poisoning cases across the country.  They suffer at a rate four times higher than the national average, meaning one in every 20 kids is affected.  By breathing in contaminated dust and putting hands and objects in their mouths, a child’s body absorbs more lead than an adult, putting them at greater risk for lead poisoning.  Lead poisoning is difficult to detect because symptoms often resemble the common cold or flu.  Sometimes children experience irritability or poor sleeping habits; and in extreme cases, where lead levels are high, it can result in seizures or even death.

Most cities across the nation have seen a decline in the number of lead poison cases or it no longer poses a threat, so why is East St. Louis still fighting it?  Part of the reason is due to the fact grant money set aside for St. Clair County left out East St. Louis.  With no funds for remediation and the city unable to foot the bill, homes and buildings remain contaminated.  Once again, the city finds itself caught in a nasty cycle, unable to move forward.

However, that could all change.  The federal government has included lead poisoning in its campaign “Healthy People 2010”, with a goal that no child will suffer a lead level higher than 10 mcg/dL and the E.P.A. says it would like to see lead completely eradicated by the year 2011.  Are these likely goals?  Only time will tell.  For now, our story is stuck since lead poisoning is just one of many issues East St. Louis must attack before it achieves that fairy tale ending.

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