Get the Lead Out

Our ancestors were born to die by predators. We are born to die by products.

Alex Manley is a non-binary writer/editor who’s lived in Montreal/Tiohtià:ke
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For me, this story starts, like many things in this era, with a loose collection of tweets.

Twitter is often touted as the future of news, but one thing I’ve discovered is its tendency to communicate users’ often oblique reactions to breaking news before the news itself, leaving you to patch together the details like a digital detective. Did two people tweet contextless YouTube links to songs by the same legendary musician within five minutes of each other by pure coincidence? Is it their birthday? Or am I going to find a link to a hastily typed-up obituary a few tweets down, a TMZ headline, a slew of crying emojis and hearts?

In this case, the first tweets I saw were straight news—sent out by a handful of journalists I follow, people who worked at the student newspaper I cut my teeth on in college. No one seems to be tweeting reactions just yet, but maybe that’s because it’s a news story that sort of defies the easy reactions Twitter is so good at channeling. 

Montreal has a lead pipe problem.

Not like Mr. Boddy in a game of Clue (I accuse Shoddy Plumber, in the Sewer, with the Lead Pipe) but like: municipal inspectors screwing with the lead testing numbers, steadily jimmying the figures downward, like a tenant struggling with leaky faucets. Drip. Drip. Drip. 

Recorded parts per billion numbers have been significantly off. In reality, they’re likely way above legal limits. Buildings all over the city are affected. Houses, schools, restaurants. We are drinking tainted water. Have been, for some time now. 

So used to turning the tap and watching the water come out, like magic. But as with any sleight of hand, it’s what you don’t see that you should be thinking about.

It’s hard to know how to respond to the news. Friends of mine resort to a kind of watery gallows humour. I send an email to the people I’m hosting for my poetry workshop: I have various beers, white wine, Canada Dry, almost every kind of hard liquor, and good ol’ Montreal-brand Tap Water™. Ha. Ha. 

Not long after, Twitter user @tomzwar does get off a reaction tweet of note, going micro-viral with this joke, mistaking, as many North Americans do, the parodic tone of a generic, bumbling 20th-century Frenchman for something more universal in Francophonie.

“Montréal people be like: Sacré bleu! Ze pipes at ma polyamoureuse partnér’s apartment are poizoned with lead”

No one in Montreal sounds like this, but the third accent aigu, the “z” in “poizoned” and the “-euse” ending grafted onto “polyamorous” are just aurally specific enough to make it a minor hit both within and without the island. As of this writing, it has 146 retweets and 818 likes. 

Not long afterwards, my girlfriend, who’s just moved to Montreal from Toronto, sends me a picture of an empty shelf in the downtown Canadian Tire. Brita water filters that filter out lead are sold out.

***

With Montreal’s lead-pipe problem on my mind, I start to find references to industrial poisoning everywhere, a toxic Baader-Meinhof phenomenon. In a 2011 essay in The Nation entitled “Why I Call Myself a Socialist,” by the actor Wallace Shawn, retweeted onto my feed by an American Bernie supporter:

“Around 400,000 babies are born on earth each day. Some are born irreparably damaged, casualties of the conditions in which their mothers lived—malnutrition, polluted water, mysterious chemicals that sneak into the body and warp the genes.”

In a book I’m reading, Anne Boyer’s The Undying, the author’s daughter, saying, in response to news that her mother’s cancer is not genetic: “You forget that I still have the curse of living in the world that made you sick.”

In a poem, a few pages earlier in the same book, from the writer Diane Di Prima: “1. kill head of Dow Chemical / 2. destroy plant / 3. MAKE IT UNPROFITABLE FOR THEM to build again.”

A writer I follow on Instagram posts a story of a Wikipedia page: Long-time nuclear waste warning messages. Ideas on how to protect future humans from our radioactive waste after we’re gone. Suggestions include hostile architecture, a sort of maze designed to spit you out in one place rather than another. And a text to ward off future wanderers, translated into “every UN written language.” It, too, is a type of poem.

This place is a message… and part of a system of messages …pay attention to it!
Sending this message was important to us. We considered ourselves to be a powerful culture.
This place is not a place of honor … no highly esteemed deed is commemorated here… nothing valued is here.
What is here was dangerous and repulsive to us. This message is a warning about danger.
The danger is in a particular location… it increases towards a center… the center of danger is here… of a particular size and shape, and below us.
The danger is still present, in your time, as it was in ours.
The danger is to the body, and it can kill.
The form of the danger is an emanation of energy.
The danger is unleashed only if you substantially disturb this place physically. This place is best shunned and left uninhabited.

On YouTube, the algorithm recommends a trailer for an upcoming movie called Dark Waters.

Your grandma tells me her grandson’s some fancy environment lawyer down in Cincinnati. 
I am a corporate defense attorney.
So?
I defend chemical companies.
Well. Now you can defend me.

 

How many did you lose?
A hundred-ninety.
A hundred and ninety cows?
You tell me nothing’s wrong here.

What if whatever’s killing those cows is in the drinking water?

At DuPont, better living through chemistry. It’s our DNA.  

You need to tell me what in the hell’s going on.
DuPont is knowingly poisoning 70,000 local residents for the last 40 years.

You knew. Still, you did nothing.
You wanna flush your career down the toilet for some cowhand?

They have all the money. All the firepower. And they’ll use it. I know. I was one of them.

A New York magazine Intelligencer article by Max Read—about the inevitable-seeming creep of facial recognition technology—circles back around to lead:

There’s no corresponding fatalism around regulating (or prohibiting) technologies that aren’t computer networks. Most states and cities maintain bans on particular kinds of dangerous weapons, for example. Or take a deadly substance like lead, which used to be discussed in not-unfamiliar terms of indispensability and inevitability: “Useful, if not absolutely necessary, to modern civilization,” a writer in the Baltimore Afro-American wrote in 1906, years after it was first clear that lead was fatally toxic. Even decades later, lead was still touted as an inevitable constituent of the future: “One of the classic quotes from a doctor in the 1920s is that children will grow up in a world of lead,” historian Leif Fredrickson told CityLab recently. Not unsurprisingly, it took the U.S. decades longer than the rest of the world to eliminate the use of lead paint indoors. But still, we banned it.

Canada banned lead paint in 1960, beating the U.S. by nearly twenty years. But a latticework of lead pipes still connects the city’s municipal drinking water sources to houses all over Montreal.

Properly executed tests show numbers of up to 15 parts per billion, three times the federal legal limit. Because I live in a building built before 1970, it might be in my pipes, and in the pipes of my downstairs neighbours. I think of the young family with the baby who moved out from under me last summer. I watched her change into a toddler while she smiled up at me from the backyard garden below my balcony. How many glasses of water did she drink? Did her mother pour for her, or for herself? Can lead poisoning be passed on through breast milk? I wonder.

If something is banned but it doesn’t go away, what does it become?  

***

Last summer, after a conversation with a friend, I began to suspect that I had undiagnosed attention-deficit issues. Doing some research into the subject, I discovered that ADHD is not, as it is often framed, a complete inability to focus; rather it’s a struggle to focus in specific instances.

That is, ADHD sufferers can focus on things that interest them without much—if any—difficulty; it’s work and matters of study and conversations that they find boring that lead to the stereotypical mind-wandering. I think back to all the years I spent at university, trying and failing to marshal my mind through the tasks in front of me. How many essays I started after midnight, the day they were due.

Now, I find that there’s something almost anti-capitalist about ADHD. You can’t focus on anything but the things you find naturally engaging; your mind can’t easily be yoked into service for drudgework at school or in the workplace.

You’re a sort of wild horse: just as fit as the tame ones for running at great speeds, but of no use to farmers, plowmen, carriage drivers, and knights-errant. In short, a horse as it was meant to be, not a horse as we have come to imagine them.

That’s not to say that people with ADHD are perfect, or untainted by the ills of capitalist progress, but to a certain degree any form of neurodivergence is cultural in nature—it’s an attempt to frame why someone does not meet our expectations of how a person should be.

But that is not a fixed concept, and as such, neither is mental illness. So what, exactly, are we medicating?

In the spring of 2018 I began taking anti-anxiety medication for the first time. A few months later I upped my daily dose from 20 mg to 30 mg a day. Around that time, I ended a nearly four-year relationship and began a hurricane summer of flirting, dating, sexting, and hookups.

By September, three different people had told me they no longer felt comfortable being my friend due to things they’d seen or heard about me doing that summer. I reduced my dose of fluoxetine from 30 mg a day to 20 mg a day, and started seeing a therapist.

I say this because, even before the lead, I’d spent the last year and a half thinking regularly and at length about the relationship between the self and the substance, the impact that certain chemicals have on our brains, the impact that the substance-altered brains have on our actions.

If we are what we do, what we do is informed by the chemical makeup of our brains, and the chemical makeup of our brains is impacted by the things we eat, drink, and breathe, apply to our skin, live on, under, inside of, or around, then what is the self?

As Terese Marie Mailhot says in her memoir Heart Berries of her struggles with depression, “I couldn’t distinguish the symptoms from my heart.”

The things I did, the people I hurt, the friends I alienated, how much of that was 10 extra mg per day of liquid fluoxetine? How much was three and a half years of sexually frustrated monogamy preceding that summer? How much was growing up in a city with doctored lead-water numbers? How much was being socialized as a straight white male? How much should I own, how much should I eat?

***

Before this year, I was most familiar with cognitive decline from stray fragments of culture—Benjamin Button, “Flowers for Algernon”—and from my own persistent anxieties, which would swell up and die down periodically, that I myself was experiencing it.

These worries were not tied, typically, to anything in particular; did not engender any behavioural changes on my part to prevent my own worsening, but yet they cropped up over and over. I became adept at hunting down signs I could use as proof to bulwark against the nagging in my head that said: You’re not as sharp as you used to be. You’re not as smart as you should have become by now.

Over the winter I played Scrabble against my paternal grandmother—a game and a half—and demolished her in what used to be a somewhat competitive rivalry. In the lengthy pauses between my own quick turns, I had time to wonder: What will it feel like when I, too, begin slipping away?

A sort of sluggishness. A glazing over of the eyes, watching an inevitability take shape.  

***

It’s a Friday in November and I’m staying at my girlfriend’s place all day to accept delivery of a furniture order from Structube—a grey Nora (“reconstituted wood veneer 4-drawer chest,” $249), and a black Trevor (“set of 3 aluminum and iron nesting tables,” $149).

As I do about once a day, I come across yet another tweet about lead. Not about Flint, Michigan—whose water has been unsafe for drinking due to elevated lead levels since 2015—but this time about the lead in another American city: Baltimore, a nine-hour drive south of Montreal.

Baltimore has reached the 300 homicide mark, but again, you won’t find the mainstream media actually examining root causes.

Like the fact that toxic lead exposure is an ongoing crisis in the city and should be declared a state of emergency.

It’s like science doesn’t matter.

One of the replies to the tweet says, “So it’s because of lead that baltimore has the 20th highest murder rate in the world? Not buying that one…”

I wonder if Baltimore is different from New York or Washington or Philadelphia, and if so, how. I come across a map of the city showing where the lead remains and where it isn’t. A shape cut into the map that doesn’t touch the poor parts of Baltimore. They call it the White L and the Black Butterfly. Steps in a dance. I think about Freddie Gray in the back of the van.

The original tweet, by user @BmoreDoc, is quote tweeting another tweet. I click through and read the original tweet he’s responding to, from user @BmoreLEADfree.

There’s a link to an article on Medium.com entitled “Baltimore’s Ongoing Lead Poisoning Crisis & the Link to Violent Crime.” I click through and begin to read the article.  

“It’s impossible to talk about crime and violence in Baltimore without talking about the thousands of youth that have been hurt by the neurotoxin of lead.  

Further, nearly all victims had no access to medical, behavioral, or nutritional therapies.”

Next, I read the Wikipedia page entitled “Lead-crime hypothesis” and a doctoral thesis by a scholar named Jessica Wolpaw Reyes entitled “Environmental Policy as Social Policy? The Impact of Childhood Lead Exposure on Crime.”

It argues convincingly that the Environmental Protection Agency’s decision to ban lead from gasoline in 1970 is in large part responsible for the significant drop in violent crime across the United States over the past half century or so. That lead poisoning is known to cause impulsive behavior, to lead to aggressiveness, to impair cognitive functioning.  

It argues that the visible fall of blood lead levels in America happened in concert with the fall of violent crime. It argues that the problem is more pronounced in big cities. That the impact is significantly more severe on poor communities where people live densely and closer to the street. The source of car exhaust.  

I think about who is poor in America. What they look like and where they live. I think about Escape from New York. I think about RoboCop. I think about George H.W. Bush’s Willie Horton attack ad. We considered ourselves to be a powerful culture.

I keep reading. I learn about the CDC’s slow but steady jimmying downward of what a healthy amount of blood lead is. I am becoming familiar with the phrases “micrograms per decilitre” and “blood-brain barrier.” I think about the dose of dextroamphetamine I took in the morning, which is making me more focused.  

After reading up on ADHD for a bit, I was able to convince first myself and then my doctor that I probably did have it. I’ve been taking one or two pills a day on days when I need to focus on work stuff. Sometimes it helps. Sometimes I spend several hours focusing on unrelated matters. On Wikipedia I come across information about the history of lead. I keep reading.  

***

In the lead-up to the 2019 federal election, the leader of Canada’s New Democratic Party, Jagmeet Singh, is asked whether he is offering a “blank cheque” to First Nations communities with regards to fixing their drinking water, something incumbent Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has made little progress with in office. Boil-water advisories are still in effect in dozens of towns and reserves across the country, and Singh has promised to address the issue if he becomes PM.

“Are you just writing a blank cheque for all problems across all Indigenous communities across the country once you get into office?”

“So, if Toronto had a drinking water problem, if Montreal had a drinking water problem, would you be asking the same question?”

“It’s a lot of money, is what I’m saying. And people will look at it and go, ‘How much money are we going to spend on all this? How are you going to find that money?’”

“That’s a genuine question. Would you be asking this question if Vancouver did not have clean drinking water? Would you be asking this question if Edmonton did not have clean drinking water? No, you wouldn’t. That’s what I’m saying. Why is it that we ask the question about whether or not Indigenous people should have clean drinking water? We’ve got to take a minute and think, ‘Why is that even a question?’ Yes, they deserve clean drinking water! Yes we can make it happen! It’s a matter of priority, and I’m going to do it.”

I vote for the NDP candidate in my local riding. She loses to the Liberal candidate; after two terms in orange, the riding is now red.

Later, when the news breaks about our water, I wonder if Montreal is different from Edmonton or Toronto or Vancouver, and if so, how.

***

The way we move around online is a fascinating thing. The internet is a series of tubes, a system of pipes, a means of delivering things. But it can also feel like a maze designed to spit you out in one place rather than another.

Some websites let you read about a man named Thomas Midgley Jr., who, in 1921, in the employ of General Motors, discovered that adding tetraethyl lead to gasoline could fix an automotive problem specific to GM cars called “engine knocking.” Another lets you read articles about a Russian boy who claims he was born on Mars talking about the Sphinx. One of the medical websites I’m on keeps showing me clickbait-y links to it.

After a few hours, my curiosity gets the best of me. I Google some of the terms involved. The claim is that there’s something behind the Sphinx’s ear. I end up on a Reddit thread, then on an article from the Smithsonian Museum’s magazine that talks about an American man’s hunt for the secrets of the Sphinx.

The article talks about the wear and tear the Sphinx has been subjected to over the years. Someone hypothesizes that ancient Egypt was once much more temperate and humid than it is now, how over centuries the forests gave way to sand. I envision the Sahara ambling back through the jungle, a prowling figure in the night. What it must have been like to see. I watched you change

The article also talks about the building of the Sphinx and the pyramids. It says according to archaeological evidence, it’s likely the workers were eating prime beef—the bones of young bulls found in their dwellings—so they probably weren’t slaves.

I wonder what’s more likely, that the middle class was casually rotating in and out of doing back-breaking labour in gigantic architectural vanity projects, as the article suggests, or that the God King thought steak-fed slaves would produce better results? I accuse Mandatory Overwork, in the Desert, with the Whips.

Anyway, I think, it’s a moot point. If you’re spending your time doing unpaid labour building the sphinx, it doesn’t matter what social class you come from or what you eat. It’s just an expansion of what the term “slave” can be used to describe. We considered ourselves to be a powerful culture.  

I think about what my friends and I eat. And how many of them have money—savings accounts, retirement funds. Whether anything any of us builds will last as long as the plastic containers we throw out after a meal. I get back to the lead.

***

The Wikipedia entry on the lead-crime hypothesis is darkly fascinating, but one quote in particular calls out to me from the Background section.

Dioscorides would later report that “the mind gives way” in individuals exposed to lead.

Something about the specific tenor of the phrase resonates in me. The idea of the mind, like the ground beneath us, giving way—an earthquake, a landslide, a collapse. To give way is both a passive action and a violent one. It, too, is a type of poem.

I start to Google, looking for more context around the quote.

I come across a story of a little boy in St. Louis. It takes me the better part of 15 minutes to track it down—the Google hit I click on doesn’t lead me to the quoted passage and, ultimately, I have to find a cached version on the Internet Archive—but in 2014, a St. Louis-based medical journal published a “Patient of the Week” story about a seven-year-old boy involving lead. Phrases jump out at me.  

“He had two episodes of emesis the night prior and five on the morning of”

 “Two were streaked with small amounts of blood.”

                            “+fatigued lately, but dressed

himself that morning,”                                                                               “Mom

did not have any other concerns, but was worried mostly about the blood in his

vomit.”

  

               “He was difficult to arouse.”

                                    “Abdomen was soft.”

 

         “complicated by acute blood

loss (recall the hematemesis).”

 

                      “Waxing and waning mental status in ED continued.”

 

“Respiratory distress, then respiratory failure developed.”

 

                           “his declining mental status”

  

“A flat plate of the abdomen is shown below:

 

      The radiopaque material in the GI tract (paint

      chips) suggested lead poisoning, and the

      diagnostic test was sent.

 

      Blood level 104 mcg/dL (normal is

      zero)”

I scroll down a bit further and there’s a short essay on lead by a doctor named Ashish Doshi. It begins: “Lead is among the first metals to be mined and used by humans, owing to its low melting point, malleability and corrosion resistance.”

Doshi’s essay quickly sketches the route that lead takes from mines to the mouths of babes.

Greek physician Nikander discovered       toxic effects of lead                       2nd century BC          

he observed colic      paralysis               century later      Greek physician Dioscorides

wrote             ‘The mind gives way.’”

 

“Lead-based paint        banned    most of the developed world      mid-1930s, 

aggressive lobbying          U.S. Lead Industries Association prevented     U.S. ban              late

1970s.        lead industry         campaign     discredit the studies        began featuring children   

                 in their advertising.

                  In                 St. Louis, 90 percent of housing        built before lead paint was banned.

 

 

 

         There is no known safe level of lead and no apparent

threshold for physiologic effects.”

 

 

   the introduction of lead-based residential paint in the 19th century

brought lead within reach of children. The addition of tetraethyl lead to gasoline               1920s

to       1980s                                                        contributed to lead exposure

contamination of air, dust and soil.                 physicians made       connection between lead-

based paint                       toxicity in children       early 1900s.”

*** 

I think about something else I read about St. Louis, in Patricia Lockwood’s memoir, Priestdaddy.

 

“      when I see that             surging flux of teenagers

     I

wonder if they are sick too. They must have

fished and waded in the creeks        played pickup games on those dirt lots. Their basements

must have flooded in springtime.                                                                                                       I

will wonder if they know, because we did not.

 

 

why were so many of us limping, feeble, milk-white, ill? There were                      kids

                                                  stunted by rheumatoid arthritis, who had fragile walks

pink pinpoints on their knees and knuckles                                            One boy’s eyes          so

clouded                  he was nearly blind;                                                                      Asthma 

infertility       rare cancer clusters         girls with cysts all over their ovaries. A preponderance of

twins,          one sickly and one well. Rashes of stillbirths  

 

 

      Babies born missing eyes, missing ears, conjoined. No one knew why.

 

I never recall seeing a            CAUTION sign or            yellow triangle

the poison was everywhere, stashed at storage sites       piled out in the

open.

 

      The local landfill contained 8,700 tons of radioactive waste,

mixed with topsoil

         people reported

seeing two-headed snakes

 

The state health department       acknowledged

cancer rates are high in these areas, but suggested       residents would be healthier if they ate

a salad once in a while—though some                         who were hit the hardest

        ate vegetables out of backyard gardens.” 

 

What kind of evil is it, to see destruction and do nothing? Who is worth protecting, if not children? The danger is still present in your time, as it was in ours.

***

When I was a child, I used to hold my breath around cars.

My parents must have told me that car exhaust was bad—we didn’t own one at the time, and never would; I’m 31 now and neither myself nor either of my parents nor my younger sister has ever owned a car as long as I’ve been alive.  

I remember once coming across a car with two separate tailpipes, one on each side of the rear bumper, and feeling a deep spring of hatred well up inside me. What monster would want to emit twice as much poison? People reported seeing two-headed snakes.

I still hold my breath when cycling through a visible cloud of exhaust. I don’t how much good a few seconds of not inhaling one particular patch of smoke does me when stacked up against living in a major city’s downtown area for three decades.

And I worry that the sharp inhale I take upon exiting the visible exhaust cloud might draw in more toxins than simply breathing normally would have. But there’s not really anyone telling you what the right approach is.  

That’s the way it is with a lot of things that are bad for you, I feel. There’s not a specific line where it’s too much—we just kind of accept that it’s bad and we shouldn’t. And we go on with our lives, pushing the bad thoughts down.  

Me, I avoid certain things: smoking cigarettes, vaping, anti-perspirants. I’ve heard that too much processed meat could give you cancer, and holding in your bowel movements could increase your chances of colorectal cancer. The bacteria leaching into your skin.  

I used to worry about microwaves, what they were doing to my food. For years after I got comfortable using them I still thought it wasn’t safe to microwave margarine. But Googling it a few years ago turned up nothing. How many things am I uselessly afraid of?   

Scrolling through end-of-decade best-of lists I re-encountered the trailer for the 2011 Terrence Malick movie The Tree of Life. There’s a scene in it that perfectly captures this horror: a troupe of laughing children running and dancing through the fog of pesticides being sprayed on their parents’ idyllic 1950s lawns, suburban mid-century Americana distilled to its purest essence. Technological progress, the removal of the unsightly other from the picture, the slow steady poisoning of innocence.

Those children, just like St. Louis boy, living their lives in a capitalist hellscape, their brains and bodies slowly betraying the presence of evil, the proverbial snake in the green grass of the backyard garden. I wonder if any of them held their breath.

***

Of course, natural things try to kill us. Lead is just a piece of the Earth that we started pulling up out of it. If we’re honest with ourselves, the planet is hostile. For a certain strain of person, it’s tempting to chalk toxicity up to human machination and plunk healthful living down in the realm of the natural.

But for every human-engineered exhaust pipe and PVC toy, there are poison tree frogs and tsetse flies, water-borne parasites and radium. Would all these people trying to eat paleo trade places with their forebears to escape the chemical haze we live in?

I think often, like Max Read, about banning certain forms of technological progress. What do we really need that we don’t already have? Would we not benefit from grinding the gears to a halt, returning to the earth?

My girlfriend and her friends have been joking about starting a cult lately, buying some land out in the middle of nowhere, and I get it.

***

One of the songs I most associate with a certain strain of early 2000s culture—a song I never had on a CD or in an iPod or on a computer but which I fell under the spell of each time I heard it played, was the Deftones track “Change (In the House of Flies).”

I watched you change / into a fly / I looked away / you’re on fire / I watched a change in you / It’s like you never had wings / And you feel so alive / I have watched you change, Chino Moreno sings. It’s haunting and beautiful, intimate and cruel, feminine energy in a masculine package, the type of song you might hear between tracks by Linkin Park and Static-X and the Alien Ant Farm Michael Jackson cover on a certain strain of radio station or Spotify playlist that seems nevertheless to far outstrip the artistry of its peers’ creations.

It’s of this song I think, of course, when I first read about the House of Butterflies.

The phrase crops up in an article I’m reading about leaded gasoline, a fuzzy scan, a black and white Xerox of a text from the mid-20th century, and like “the mind gives way,” it, too, is a type of poem.

I Google the phrase “house of butterflies” and find an article by Rebecca Skloot called “Houses of Butterflies,” about a scientist named Herb Needleman, published in the University of Pittsburgh’s alumni magazine.

Needleman talks of his experiences as a young man working alongside men who’d been employed at the DuPont Deep Water plant in New Jersey, where tetraethyllead was mixed with gasoline.

The nickname was given to it because the workers began to hallucinate. They could see flashes of living colour in the air where there weren’t any, an insectarium of the mind. Snatching at nothing.

The things the human mind does with incomplete or corrupted data are fascinating. Does the sound of a needle skipping on a warped record count as music? A leadened brain conjuring flapping wings not once, not twice, but over and over and over, five men, ten men, twenty. Men who are in the process of dying. Some of whom will be in straitjackets soon.  

I think of the 1997 animated movie Anastasia, where the title character chases brightly coloured butterflies in a dreamy haze, unaware that she’s on a ship, wandering perilously close to the edge, sleepwalking up to the mouth of death, the yawning sea.

Needleman’s experiences with the workers from the House of Butterflies were instrumental in his railing against the lead industry later in life. His scientific work instrumental in getting lead banned.

“Lead does so many things to human biology, we don’t even know which ones are most important,” he says. It affects neurotransmitters responsible for nerve conduction, causes leaky capillaries, kills brain cells, affects RNA transferase and transcription of the genome, and that’s just an abbreviated list. “There are thousands of articles out there,” he says, “and so many effects that could be critical, we don’t really know what’s what,” and then he pauses. “We just know that the more you look for brain effects, the more you find them, even at very low doses.”

I check the date on the UPitt article. It was published in 2001. I check the date of St. Louis boy’s Patient of the Week story. It is from 2014. St. Louis is a nine-hour drive west of Pittsburgh.

I wonder if any copies of that issue of the UPitt alumni magazine ever made it to St. Louis over the course of those thirteen years. Mailed to former graduates who’d returned home. Stuffed in a milk crate with old copies of The New Yorker and Harper’s by someone who got a job there. Left under a seat on an inter-city bus.

I wonder what year that leaden paint was applied in St. Louis, and by whom, who chose it in the hardware store, whether any of the paint in that store on that day was lead-free. The processes by which things are invented, designed, created, built, packaged, shipped, stocked, advertised, sold. Capitalism is a system of pipes, a means of delivering things.  

Every few months, it seems, a retweet about the water in Flint would arrive on my digital doorstep. It’s been 500 days since Flint had clean drinking water. It’s been 1,000 days. It’s been 1,500 days. Tweets noting how little of various billionaires’ absurd hoards it would take to rectify the issue. I read articles. I watched videos. The same nothing continued to happen.  

Recently I came across a Mother Jones article in which a writer argues vehemently that there’s no proof that drastically declining reading comprehension levels in Flint’s students had anything to do with the city’s leaden water. The security blanket of plausible deniability.

Before COVID-19 enveloped America like wildfire flames licking at the country’s lungs, exploiting loopholes in the country’s backwards and broken healthcare system like a hacker making quick work of a shoddily constructed website’s lax security, it was already a dangerous place to be powerless, a place governed by a sort of nationwide bystander effect. All these billionaires, politicians, government agencies waiting for someone else to do the heavy lifting, to pick up the phone and call for help.  

I recall reading, around 2017, an article noting that the Trump administration was especially dangerous because of how ill-suited it was to responding to a pandemic-type global emergency. I remember, as a teenager, reading in the Atlantic that experts predicted that a powerful hurricane could do unprecedented damage to New Orleans. I think now of the way these tragedies unfold in slow motion, until suddenly they’re full-grown.  

Is there anyone less powerful than the children of the poor, the Black and brown? What kind of evil is it, to see destruction and do nothing? Even when the destruction is slow, and quiet, and hidden away. What is it like to watch your children change, like they never had been touched by that heavy substance lurking in the pipes, coming out as water, coming out as exhaust? Who is worth protecting, if not children?  

***

In 2007, under the auspices of my first-ever writing workshop at Concordia University in their now-infamous creative writing program, I submit a poem for critique entitled “The HMS Terror.” The second half of it reads,

{i suppose it’s fitting that
lead poisoning was also known
in times past as saturnism
because (not because of the rings, no)
of all the adjectives
and there are many
that describe depression
arguably the most well-suited to the case
is saturnine}

Like many poems written by 19-year-olds, it’s really about being sad about a breakup, but I filter the sadness through the fact that I’d been on Wikipedia reading about Franklin’s attempt to discover the Northwest Passage, a voyage derailed in part due to the fact that the sailors’ food rations were stored in lead tins.

Now, I think about the men going crazy in the frozen north. I wonder if any of them saw butterflies.

 

***

 

My maternal grandmother died in 2012. I accuse Cigarette Smoke, in the Throat, with the Carcinogens.

We never really got close until after the diagnosis, when I was in my early twenties. The sense that she was poisoning herself was intractable from my first interactions with her. The smell, the yellowness. The way she was always slipping away for a smoke break.

They first discovered that cigarettes were dangerous in the 1960s. According to the CDC, tobacco use causes over seven million deaths a year worldwide; each day, they say, three hundred people not yet old enough to legally purchase cigarettes become daily users.

Who is worth protecting, if not children? It’s a sort of sluggishness.

***

I think about people stumbling upon six hundred tombs in Egypt for the workers tasked with building the Sphinx. I think about the twelve dead men in tetraethyl labs in New Jersey. I think about one near-dead child in St. Louis, a mass of lead collected in his guts. This place is not a place of honor

To have a body, to be alive, is to be subject to capitalism. It touches us before we even come out, a probing finger, a bias that shapes an argument, a framework that demarcates what is and isn’t possible. Casualties of the conditions in which their mothers lived.

***

In the Trump era, one of my favourite pieces of internet culture is “Mister Gotcha,” a webcomic by Matt Bors featuring a run-of-the-mill white Twitter guy popping up throughout history to critique those agitating for change. The comic reaches its apex—and punchline—with the orange-T-shirt-clad jerk popping out of a well to respond to an emaciated medieval serf’s complaint that “We should improve society somewhat.”

On cue, the smirking reply comes: “And yet you participate in society. Curious! I am very intelligent.” 

The underlying logic perfectly captures the trap of existence: We are all—St. Louis boy, pregnant mothers, GM workers, all of us—born into a cage, a series of dangers laid out to ensnare us by forces beyond our awareness, understanding, or control. Pregnant British women taking their prescribed thalidomide, American children bringing handguns to school, state-of-the-art airplanes going down in Ethiopia.

Our ancestors were born to die by predators. We are born to die by products.

***

One of the links on the Wikipedia page for Thomas Midgley Jr., the inventor of both tetraethyl lead and chlorofluorocarbons, is to a Time magazine feature from 2010: The 50 Worst Inventions. I glance down. The next invention on the list is called the Vibrating Ab Belt.

I try to imagine the kind of mind—or, considering, this is a magazine, collection of minds—that could conceive of a list where the failures of leaded gasoline and the vibrating ab belt could possibly sit next to each other. What would an America poisoned and ruined by vibrating ab belt use look like? What is here was dangerous and repulsive to us.

A note near the end of the entry says that Midgley Jr. died from strangulation after getting trapped in a contraption he’d built. There is a saying about living by the sword, I think.

***

I remember a comparison I read once, that Americans are confused by the fact that Beijing has such a pronounced smog problem that they somehow haven’t been able to solve, but Chinese people are confused by the fact that America has such a pronounced gun problem that they haven’t been able to solve.

I think about how easy it was for General Motors to solve the problem of engine knocking, by comparison. I think about the fact that the problems that get solved are the ones that make someone, somewhere, rich, and the problems that don’t get solved are the ones that keep someone, somewhere, rich.

I think about the phrase, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” and the two meanings of the word “broke.”  

A population slowly losing its mind over the potential ills of vaccines—a medical technology with hundreds of years of positive results to its name, and yet silent about the enormous amount of lead that remains in American houses, a toxin with thousands of years of negative results to its name—has a clear set of priorities.

*** 

Eating non-food objects is known as pica. It remains a relatively poorly understood disorder, affecting primarily children and pregnant women, and is often associated with mineral deficiencies.

It’s hard, reading up on pica, not to think about the relationship between the body and the brain more generally, the way specific needs get translated into desires. The foods, the drinks, the feelings we crave. How much of what we ingest is choice and how much of it is the brain reiterating the body’s most pressing needs into the language of the grocery store, the fast food menu, the open fridge?

On the POW page, it says St. Louis boy was anemic. How tasty chips of lead-based paint must look when you’re seven and your body is missing vital stores of iron. A need you can’t understand or voice pushing your hand toward the flaking spot on the wall. Peeling it off and wondering to yourself.

A medical info page tells me pica sufferers won’t volunteer that they’ve been eating ice, dirt, rubber bands. They themselves don’t understand what’s happening—they’re simply the middleman between brain and body.

*** 

How long does the bad thing stay? There’s a Vox explainer video about the nuclear waste issue I watched a few months before coming across the accidentally poetic text on Wikipedia that gets at this.  

The idea that our forays into the powers of things that can kill without so much as a glance, simply by being near you, is something we must reckon with, knowing they will outlive not just us, not just our descendants, but our culture entirely.  

What would St. Louis boy’s life have been like if we had that means to warn unwitting people about the presence of deadly toxins in their walls?

I’m joking, of course. The people who made the daisy chain of interlocking decisions that removed lead from the ground and spread it all over the walls of the house in St. Louis spoke and wrote the same language as the boy’s parents.

Unlike future civilizations wandering, blissfully ignorant, into our long-forgotten yet still potent toxic waste, the barrier here is not one of language, or cultural understandings of danger.

Rather, it’s a sort of sluggishness—consciousness, faith, perhaps, that something might be done, but neither the strength nor the inclination to set it in motion, like a dying person staring at a telephone a few feet away from them on the floor, the blood slowly draining from their arteries.

A glazing over of the eyes, watching an inevitability take shape. We considered ourselves to be a powerful culture.

***

What is it that we worry about affecting us?

At the end of a poem called “The Moment I Saw a Pelican Devour” by American writer Paige Lewis in their debut poetry collection, Space Struck, I find a discourse on the interplay between chemistry, sexism, class signifiers and workers’ rights:

not even our mouths belong to us. Listen, in

               the early 1920s, women were paid to paint radium

                               onto watch dials so that men wouldn’t have to ask

 

the time in dark alleys. They were told it was safe,

               told to lick their brushes into sharp points. These

                               women painted their nails, their faces, and judged

 

whose skin shone brightest. They coated their

               teeth so their boyfriends could see their bites

                               with the lights turned down. The miracle here

 

is not that these women swallowed light. It’s that

               when their skin dissolved and their jaws fells off,

                               the Radium Corporation claimed they all died

 

from syphilis. It’s that you’re telling me about

               the dull slivers of dead saints, while these

                               women are glowing beneath our feet.

On Twitter I read that America has the rightmost major political party in the world. I wonder what the effect of several decades of tetraethyl lead inhalation on a country’s collective consciousness might be like. How conservative and angry all the old people in North America seem to be. The phrases “OK boomer” and “brain worms” crawling all over social media. 

I’m helping my girlfriend paint her bathroom millennial pink, trying not to breathe in too much.

***

Scanning the city of Montreal’s information page on the lead problem, I come across this paragraph.

“Si vous n’êtes pas en mesure d’effectuer cette vérification, communiquez avec votre propriétaire ou avec un plombier. Toutefois, même si votre entrée d’eau potable n’est pas en plomb dans votre domicile, il est possible qu’une portion souterraine le soit”

My eyes notice something.

                                      plombier

plomb

Plombier, plomb. Plumber, plumb. Leader, lead. It’s hard to miss. Later, when trying to re-find the quote to include it in this piece, I realize that plumbing itself is plomberie.

They all come from the Latin term for lead, plumbum. In French, where the two words are closer, it’s more obvious, but the very concept of plumbing is literally inexpressible, unthinkable without lead.

 ***

When they are done bringing the Structube boxes into my girlfriend’s apartment, I offer the delivery men a glass of water. The shorter one is audibly out of breath, and accepts.

I go to the kitchen and turn the tap. Like magic, the water begins to come out. The danger is still present, in your time, as it was in ours.

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