The Atlantic

The Poisoned Generation

The story of a decades-long lead-poisoning lawsuit in New Orleans illustrates how the toxin destroys black families and communities alike.
Source: Jacob Myrick

Casey Billieson was fighting against the world.

Hers was a charge carried by many mothers: moving mountains to make the best future for her two sons. But the mountains she faced were taller than most. To start, she had to raise her boys in the Lafitte housing projects in Treme, near the epicenter of a crime wave in New Orleans. In the spring of 1994, like mothers in violent cities the world over, Billieson anticipated the bloom in murders the thaw would bring. Fueled by the drug trade and a rising scourge of police corruption and brutality, violence rose to unseen levels that year, and the city’s murder rate surged to the highest in the country.

Four hundred and twenty four people were slain in New Orleans in 1994, a murder rate that may have been the highest ever in any American city. Rival drug dealers killed each other while cops killed witnesses and whistleblowers in plain sight. Almost 1 percent of all young black men in the city were killed that year. Many of those murders were committed in the yards and units near where her sons, Ryan and Ronnie—then aged 5 and 3 years old—played or stayed with relatives and friends. Even as a Bill Clinton-led federal government used popular fears of “superpredators” to redouble the nation’s commitment to mass incarceration, Billieson attempted the superhuman task of trying to provide her children with a way out of Lafitte.

But the obstacles for a young mother and her two children ran deeper than the onslaught in the streets. “They played inside a lot,” Billieson said, “and we thought they’d be safe that way, but then we learned even that was bad for them.”

Inside the apartment, her boys were insulated from the crossfire outside. But like thousands of others seeking shelter behind the peeling walls muffling the bubbling bass dripping from Crown Vic speakers, the poison of lead would find a way into her sons’ bodies all the same. Ryan and Ronnie, along with thousands of other poor children in New Orleans whose parents believed they could shelter their children from the violence outside, would become an entire poisoned generation.

Lead was only one of many ecological risks her family faced. The playgrounds where Ryan and Ronnie played often brimmed with pools of fetid, standing water—owing to New Orleans’s fabled and constant flooding—that were sometimes tainted with battery acid. Billieson had heard tell about the regurgitated sewage and chemical waste from Louisiana’s booming petrochemical operations that flowed back into dirt common spaces where her children learned to walk, all while they breathed in the emissions from the nearby roads and highways.

Some other kids across the virtually all-black New Orleans housing projects had it even worse. That year, the Press Park section of the Desire projects and its nearby elementary school were declared a Superfund site by the Environmental Protection Agency for a concoction of known contaminants leaching from a closed landfill.

Billieson did her best to protect her boys, and she certainly wasn’t naive about the sicknesses that dogged her neighborhoods. People in the projects were well aware that their environments weren’t healthy, and she went the extra mile; researching the specific risks her kids faced, including those from lead, at the public library. But what do you do when everything is contaminated?

Around the time Ryan was entering kindergarten and Ronnie was supposed to be learning how to count to 10, the boys began struggling with the childhood learning goals Billieson set for them. “They had learning disabilities, and when I say disabilities, I mean learning at a slower pace,” Billieson told me. But black kids in the projects were written off and diagnosed with learning disabilities all the time, and good, affordable doctors were scarce. There still wasn’t much even the most diligent parents could

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