Sep 28, 2021 - Health

Lead exposures in children persist

Percent of children with detectable blood lead levels
Reproduced from JAMA Pediatrics; Map: Axios Visuals

More than half of children under 6 years old in the U.S. had detectable lead levels in their blood, with exposures much higher from children in communities with pre-1950s housing or with public insurance or high poverty rates, a new study found.

Why it matters: The study, published in the peer-reviewed JAMA Pediatrics on Monday, is the first known national analysis investigating the "association of lead exposure with individual- and community-level factors."

The big picture: A blood lead concentration as low as five micrograms per deciliter can affect the long-term cognitive development of children, which can lead to lifelong learning disabilities and behavioral problems.

  • The CDC and the World Health Organization concluded in 2019 there is no safe level of lead exposure.
  • Prior studies have shown that if U.S. children born in 2018 had blood lead levels of zero, it would result in an overall benefit of approximately $84 billion during their lifetimes due to increased productivity and decreases in health care, education and criminal justice system costs.

By the numbers: Researchers analyzed blood lead tests given to 1.14 million U.S. children by Quest Diagnostics between October 2018 and February 2020, with nearly 2% having blood lead levels greater than or equal to five micrograms per deciliter.

  • The highest proportions of children with some detectable lead were found in Nebraska at 83%, Missouri at 82%, Michigan at 78%, Iowa at 76% and Utah at 73%.
  • Nearly 58% of children from predominately Black ZIP codes and 56% of children from predominately Hispanic ZIP codes had detectable blood lead levels compared to 49% from predominately white ZIP codes. 

What they're saying: "These findings confirm that we still have a long way to go to end childhood lead poisoning in the United States," Philip Landrigan and David Bellinger write in a corresponding editorial also published Monday.

  • "They reconfirm the unacceptable presence of stark disparities in children's lead exposure by race, ethnicity, income, and ZIP code — many of them the cruel legacy of decades of structural racism — a legacy that falls most harshly on the children and families in our society with the fewest resources."

What to watch: The Environmental Protection Agency on Monday announced it will train contractors working in low-income and other underserved neighborhoods for free on how to rid pre-1970s housing from lead.

  • Lead-based paint and the dust it produces as it wears down remains the predominant source of children’s lead exposure.
  • The Biden administration also proposed this year to remove and replace all lead water pipes across the U.S.

The bottom line: Although lead exposures have significantly decreased since the 1970s after it was removed from gasoline and new paint, harmful exposure persists.

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