Aaron Bady: Heavy Stuff: Lead is Poison

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It’s peculiar that we know that lead is poison, that there is no “safe” amount to put in your body, and yet we still put it in our bodies. It is peculiar because you would think that what we know would inform what we do; you would think, for example, that Flint, Michigan, would not choose to use a river that had been poisoned for nearly a century as its municipal water supply. The fact that it did—the impossible-to-avoid fact that this is the choice that was made in Flint, Michigan—forces us to re-evaluate the basis of that expectation. One of the terms is wrong. Is it “we”? Is it “know”? Is it “safe”? Is it “choose”?

Or maybe it’s the word “peculiar,” which has two primary but opposed meanings: “strange” and “particular.” Describing slavery as America’s “peculiar institution” in the 19th century, for example, was not meant to imply that slavery was strange, but that it was particular to the southern United States (the rest of the world having mostly abolished it). In this sense, it was anything but “estranged” or “alien”; precisely in its particularity, “the peculiar domestick institution of the Southern States,” as John Calhoun put it, was what made his home what it was.

If it’s peculiar that we drink poison, as a society, then there are one of two choices: either it’s a strange and inexplicable practice, or it’s what makes us who we are. It might also, like the word peculiar itself, be a strange and particular combination of both.

Here is what we know....