Lead poisoning continues to pose the most serious environmental health hazard to children in the United States, scientists say.
The warning comes a month before the release of a study to be published in the journal Public Health Reports, which found that health problems associated with lead can occur at much lower levels of exposure than previously thought. The warning also precedes the release of a report from the Center of Disease Control that indicates average lead levels in American children have declined since the late 1970s.
Scientists caution that the CDC report may send a false message that the lead crisis is over.
“Each one of us has been adversely affected by lead,” said Bruce Lanphear, director of the Children’s Environmental Health Center and lead author of the study. “Despite recent declines in blood lead levels, the levels found in children today are 10 to 100 times greater than that of pre-Industrial Age humans.”
Lanphear’s research is the first to examine lead at such low levels in the human body. Prior to his work, blood lead levels at 10 micrograms per deciliter were considered to be safe. The study shows that levels below 5 micrograms per deciliter can have adverse effects on reading and math aptitude in children.
At greatest risk are children in low-income communities. The disparity between lead poisoning in low-income and high-income children is a factor of 8. African American children are five times more likely to be exposed to lead than white children.
“The racial and social disparity that results are profound and inconsistent with the promise that each child in America has an equal opportunity to succeed in life,” Lanphear said. “These children should not be the biological indicators of substandard housing.”
Mohammad Akhter, executive director of the American Public Health Association, said that while 1 million children run a high risk of lead poisoning in the United States, only one-third receive proper screening. Primary prevention, which reduces lead from its source (usually house paint) should be a stronger national priority, he adds.
Forty percent of the houses in the United States contain lead-based paint. Families that live in low-income housing often cannot afford to pay for renovations to rid their homes of lead.
“Today it is easier and less expensive to remove lead from people’s homes,” Atkher said. “This type of issue, when we know a solution and don’t take action, is shameful.”