Photo by Joanna Dale via Adobe Stock

Memphian LaTricea Adams has been aware of lead poisoning risks since she was a kid, but she made its prevention in Black and brown communities the center of her work since she learned about the water crisis facing communities in Flint, Michigan.

In 2015 she founded Black Millennials For Flint, a Memphis-based environmental justice organization that advocates for the reduction of lead exposure as well as other pollutants in communities’ water, air, food, and consumer products. Since then, Adams, 36, and her organization have continued to educate about lead poisoning prevention around the country, including in Memphis, and push lawmakers to embrace environmental justice policies.

Adams, director of organizational quality for the Office of Charter Schools for Shelby County Schools, also serves as Tennessee’s representative to the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council

With her audience at the White House, she hopes to steer environmental conversations and resources to those most vulnerable. “There are many moving parts that exist within our environment. We focus on the impact that it has on humans,” Adams said.

LaTricea Adams of Black Millennials for Flint

The University of Memphis graduate, who is working on a doctorate at Tennessee State University, has done education and lead poisoning prevention work with numerous organizations in Memphis, Washington D.C. and Baltimore. Some of her work has been featured in the BET docuseries, “Finding Justice: The Baltimore Lead Paint Crisis.”

This week, Adams’ organization and the Shelby County Health Department are among government agencies and community groups recognizing National Lead Poisoning Prevention Week to bring awareness to a hazard that often goes unnoticed.

Even low levels of exposure can harm children’s brain development, according to the World Health Organization. Kids with higher lead levels in their blood have stunted growth and learning, and they can have behavior problems. For children, there’s no safe level of exposure.

Adams spoke with MLK50: Justice Through Journalism about effective lead poisoning prevention and her work in environmental justice.

Lead poisoning prevention has been central to your environmental justice work both here in Memphis and abroad. When did lead poisoning first come onto your radar as something to be aware of?

LaTricea Adams: The first time I came to conceptualize things surrounding lead is as a child.

I’m a native of Memphis; my parents got married in the heart of South Memphis. Even in the early ’90s, I remember they would say, ‘Stay away from the window sills.’” 

I kind of took it as grandma said, don’t be around this window. But having that context now is imperative. Our elders were aware of this being an issue for decades but did not really have accessibility or knowledge around how to mitigate issues surrounding lead specifically.

What is it about lead that’s so harmful?

Lead, copper and arsenic. Those three are not very nice at all to the human body. When lead enters the body, it can impact you in myriad ways and it’s irreversible, meaning that whatever damage is done is done.

Resources

Memphis Light Gas & Water Division information on water testing and location of lead water lines.

​​Memphis & Shelby County Lead Safe Collaborative is a nonprofit that seeks to end lead poisoning in Memphis. 

Shelby County Health Department lead testing and resources, including blood tests.Green and Healthy Homes Initiative for home inspections.

It can cause neurological damage, which could cause issues (with) cognitive development, including your intellectual capacity and mental health issues. It also causes reproductive issues; it can stunt your growth, cause issues with the skin, kidney damage, heart disease, make you more susceptible to diabetes.

When we think about the harms of toxic substances, I don’t usually see neurological damage at the top of the list. What does that look like?

I only mentioned the cognitive component like memory loss. But it’s also symptoms such as extreme migraines or frequent headaches. Another part that’s really important is depression, so that mental health component.

There’s also research that suggests that when you do an overlap of communities that have moderate to high exposure of lead, there’s a correlation to violent crime. So when you think about some of those symptoms of lead poisoning, it makes sense for there to be increases in violent crime where there is (a large) amount of lead exposure in a particular community.

If lead is that dangerous, what should people look for?

The first thing that you should look out for is how you can be exposed in the home. If you suspect or just want to know if there is lead in your drinking water, you can get your water tested. Memphis, Light, Gas and Water provides free water testing kits. …

I know a lot of people are like ‘lead-based paint has been (practically) abolished essentially since the ‘70s.’ However, the thing about it is even if you have painted over lead paint, it does still exist. So that’s really the main way that it kind of flows throughout a home and you see that a lot in historic homes, older homes.

Of the houses that exist in the city of Memphis, over 50,000 were built before 1978, which is a main indicator that there might be lead paint issues in the homes. So there are public programs that are in place to get things tested for lead. There’s also accessibility to community-based organizations that can do that testing as well.

A lead pipe in need of replacing. Photo by GDM Photo Video via Adobe Stock. 

Other than testing, if someone suspects lead in their home, what are some things they can do to protect themselves?

… If you have babies in the home, it is imperative that you (vacuum), sweep and mop a lot. Lead paint dust settles on the floor. When you have toddlers or babies that are crawling, they of course put their hands in their mouths, other objects, really anything in their mouths. So it’s really important from a housekeeping perspective, and that’s something simple that people can (do) to mitigate as much household lead paint dust as possible.

It’s also important to get your children tested for lead. The Shelby County Health Department provides free lead testing for children from birth on up until age 18.

It seems the greatest lead exposure concern is at home. Are there any outside sources we should think about?

I don’t want to go too far down the rabbit hole. But I also want to emphasize the importance of lead that can sometimes be found in consumer products. And what I mean by that is in dollar stores or “value” stores. They have a lot of cheap imported toys, and cheap imported beauty products, and sometimes those items have lead.

At least in the state of Tennessee, there’s not enough prior notice. You may have seen in some instances and stores, it may have a sticker that tells you if there are toxic chemicals or parts to particular products; kudos to California for establishing that mandate. So in that instance, if anything is sold or manufactured in California that has any type of chemicals or toxins, they notify the consumer.

But in a state like Tennessee, we don’t have that unless it’s a product that was also sold in the state of California, that just so happened to be sold in Tennessee. So that’s also something to think about, especially with toys — because like I mentioned, little children put everything in their mouths — and … dollar stores are located where Black and brown people are.

Since you mentioned state regulations, we’ve obviously come a long way in our understanding of lead’s danger, and have some regulations to mitigate its use. But are there any policy steps we still need to take to make things safer?

I want to give a shout-out to now current mayor of Shelby County, Lee Harris. When he was serving as a senator for the state of Tennessee, he introduced a bill that made it mandatory to do testing at school drinking water. And for that to pass unanimously in a state that can be considered conservative is definitely a move in the right direction.

Now, what I will say is, the EPA needs more teeth to hold states and therefore cities accountable for testing.

It seems the main sources of lead exposure are old infrastructure. But couldn’t anyone live in an old home? What makes this an environmental justice issue?

When you think about access to not just affordable housing, but healthy housing, Black and brown people and people experiencing economic distress don’t have immediate access to healthy housing.

Where I live, it’s majority white folks who live in that area, because it’s on South Main. All of those buildings are old. But because of the demographic that is served in the area, the proper (precautions) have taken place.

So you’re absolutely right, anybody can live in an older home. Older architecture is beautiful. It lasts a long time. It’s a worthy investment. But what makes it an injustice is the fact that those who have wealth or accessibility to resources are able to get the appropriate treatment to ensure that their homes are safe.

Whereas poor people, Black people, Latinx people, Indigenous people — they do not. Not only do they not have accessibility to the actual services that are needed to remediate homes or mitigate lead issues in the home, they don’t even know these resources exist or that the problem even exists.

So that’s where it becomes an environmental injustice, that based on color and based on income, we start to see the disparities between who has access to lead-free homes and who doesn’t.

As someone who works on environmental justice issues, what do you see as the difference between general environmental work and environmental justice work?

My nonprofit, Black Millennials for Flint, we do a lot of leadership development and training for young, aspiring EJ leaders. We also do training with white folks. One of the best ways that I have tried to break down the difference between the two is when we talk about environmental justice, people are at the center.

For example, when we think about climate change, we’re not just talking about climate change as a research concept. We’re talking about how if I am a poor, Black woman living in Memphis, and I don’t have a car, and I’m pregnant, and I’m having to walk to a bus stop in unbearable heat, where it’s hot, but it’s not supposed to be this hot. Now, I’m in jeopardy of losing my life and the life of my baby just because I’m trying to make a living, go to work, and this is how I’m impacted by the environment.

That whole anecdote is real, but it has a person at the core. (General environmentalism) is more an ideology, like zero-waste, or recycling. Those things are important, they have their place. But when you actually begin to peel back the layers of programming that are associated with recycling and zero waste and all of these very white concepts — because Black and brown people have (long been) recycling — it doesn’t center people.

It just talks about an action itself, but it’s not connected to community, it’s not connected or centered on humanity. It’s just talking about this very isolated thing.

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The only time where you see there being a bit of empathy from a white environment organization is when you talk about animals. So even think about the imagery that you see, like with the National Wildlife Federation, for example, where they talk about how glaciers are melting and how that impacts polar bears.

That’s real messed up, I hate that that is going on with the polar bears. But guess what? The same type of stuff is going on in South Memphis and North Memphis, where it’s impacting people.

You mentioned that Black and brown people have been recycling before it was popular. What do you mean by that?

Every Black person that I know — and I know that you shouldn’t make a generalization — but I’ll just speak to my family. My grandparents had a drawer of plastic bags. … You go over to grandma’s house on Sunday (for dinner), she’s going to go in that drawer and get you a plastic bag (to wrap leftovers) that’s been reused several times.

So this whole aspect of recycling and reusing is a concept that we’ve been using as Black people and Indigenous people, Latino folks, for centuries.

A 2012 exhibit at the National Civil Rights Museum depicted the 1968 sanitation workers’ strike. Photo by Adam Jones via Wikicommons. 

You said that you consider the Memphis sanitation strike an environmental justice movement. From a historical perspective, I feel like we often think of the strike as a labor movement.

It’s both. What is missing from a historical perspective is that the working environment was toxic and inhumane. People were working in just completely abysmal working environments, there was dangerous machinery where folks would in some instances would lose limbs and digits, but also just the lack of cleanliness. 

So when you talk about sanitation, there’s a process to ensure that those who are dealing with solid waste are protected. There has to be a barrier to protect them from the waste that they are actually (handling.) And because the majority of folks who were sanitation workers were Black and blue-collar people, they didn’t have all of the gear to prevent them from getting sick.

Thinking about what we throw away, not just paper and cups, but soiled items, medical material and people who are touching this stuff, and not having appropriate supplies provided by their employer. So it becomes not just the labor issue, but the environment is where we live, work and play. And so we have been socialized — unfortunately, through a very white perspective — around the environment being just polar bears, whales and marine life. But the environment is where we all coexist. Especially from an African-centered perspective, it’s a very spiritual connection to land and where we live. 

Correction: LaTricea Adams is working on her doctorate at Tennessee State University. An earlier version of this story listed the wrong university.

Carrington J. Tatum is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Email him at carrington.tatum@mlk50.com


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