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Tuesday, January 10, 2006

The Politics of Lead Prevention

Leave it to the Gateway Green Alliance (known as the "Green Party of St. Louis" when they need to keep serious candidates from running under the Green Party banner) to turn a serious public health issue like lead poisoning into an excuse to create pointless polarization and flaunt an unimaginative purity.

Instead of advertising an open, solution-seeking meeting on lead poisoning, the group used their January 4 "educational forum" to bait the city's director of operations, Ron Smith. Even though Smith declined to return their e-mail messages (he later did attend the forum, though), the Gateway Greens used his name in press releases and on fliers.

"Will City Discuss Lead Problems With Critics?" asked one flier, utilizing corporate media's strategy of painting issues in terms of conflicts with clear good and bad sides. The advertising was more intent on setting up Ron Smith with a "when did you stop beating your wife?" conundrum: if he didn't show up, he would "prove" their point that he was unwilling to attend. If he did show up to defend the city's position, Smith would know in advance he would be facing a freshly-primed hostile audience.

It thus seems reasonable for Smith to avoid returning e-mail messages or phone calls after the ads started appearing. Not only would he be set up as the sacrificial lamb, he would be spending time talking with a group more interested in empty political posturing than fighting lead poisoning in the city. After all, the Gateway Green Alliance tries to be interchangeable with the Green Party of St. Louis, and thus is a political entity rather than a public health advocacy group. The Gateway Greens would only exploit their participation in lead prevention to build their phony claim that they are the city's second largest political party. They are not; an attempt to build the party into a political force failed when the leadership of the Gateway Greens shooed away serious city-based organization-builders using some pretty dated Soviet-style tactics. As a result, their membership has dwindled and their influence has waned. No wonder they needed to resort to a cheap publicity stunt like this one.

I should point out that an ever cheaper publicity stunt available to them would have been actually running a political campaign against Mayor Francis Slay, but instead the Green Party mayoral candidate seemed to be running against other Greens instead of the Democratic incumbent.

With their recent gripes about the city's lead remdeiation program, their crude polarization has only given Mayor Slay a chance to take the high ground on the issue as the person who is really helping the city's children.

It's no surprise that MayorSlay.com jumped to take the high ground. I still think that the city government is acting too slow in the lead crisis, and could put pressure on moneybags at the Danforth Foundation and others for funding lead prevention efforts ahead of more ephemeral projects like floating islands. Some progress is being made under Slay, but not enough.

Laws need to be enforced. For instance, Dr. Daniel Berg points out in his article "Lead Poisoning in St. Louis" that the city is not enforcing a 1971 ordinance that would require city landlords to abate lead hazards as soon as tenant's child was diagnosed with lead poisoning. The biggest problem rests with rental properties -- that's one area where great focus needs to be. Berg has some other good ideas: The city could publish a list of properties that have been abated, so that families would avoid properties that will poison their kids; the city could make sure that poisoned children be able to immediately move to safe housing.

Berg claims that only 130 homes a year are abated in St. Louis; if that is true, then major funding is needed for the city's efforts. Reliance on federal grants severely limits funding, and needs to be changed. Yet a real strategy for increasing funding would seek out local private sources and enforce existing laws instead of yelling at the city government that federal funds be diverted into local lead prevention. After all, it's not terribly difficult to participate in your own government -- especially in St. Louis. What good are threats?

Real public health programs are solution-focused and well-funded. The work that needs to be done to prevent lead poisoning in the city is difficult and should not present a political opportunity to anyone. Anyone using lead prevention as a political wedge is doing a great disservice to the poor children on the city of St. Louis. Anyone who is doling out millions of dollars for "civic" projects who is not putting lead abatement on the project list must not come into the city very often.

Everyone needs to put aside their misplaced priorities and grand gestures and try to make the city a safe place for children. Abating lead will take time and money, and no heroes will be made -- but lives will be saved.

1 comment:

Joe said...

Excellent post!