Why Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Must Remain a High Priority for Public Health Agendas
As President Biden discussed in his recent speech, lead poisoning still presents a clear and present danger to our children’s health and must remain a top priority. While COVID has been the major focus in public health for the last year, the prevalence of this silent killer has also increased during the pandemic as children are spending more time at home and have more opportunities for exposure to lead. Lead poisoning is a major health crisis that continues to affect millions of people in the US despite significant attempts to mitigate the risk of ingesting lead.
It’s no secret that even small amounts of lead in the body can have devastating physical consequences. This isn’t new news: doctors were well aware of the negative effects of consuming lead thousands of years ago. Today, according to the CDC, there are more than 500,000 American children under the age of five who have elevated levels of lead in their blood. That is absolutely unacceptable, because lead poisoning is entirely preventable.
Why are children so vulnerable to lead poisoning? For starters, kids often put objects in their mouth that probably shouldn’t be there. In most cases, this is harmless, but even minute traces of lead on those objects can have lifelong consequences that affect physical and mental health. It’s no wonder that the National Institutes of Health continue to view lead poisoning as a crisis.
Significant strides have been made in reducing childhood lead poisoning. Most paints containing lead were banned in 1977. Several later laws have further restricted the amount of lead that can be contained in paint. Those are positive steps, but there are still millions of American homes that contain older paint with high levels of lead. In many areas, these properties are homes to lower-income families. Those kids are disproportionately affected because they live in older units that don’t meet modern lead standards. Soil and water often contain lead. Again, many of the highest concentrations of soil and water lead exposures are found in low-income areas that have not gone through full remediation. According to Stanford University, “Children between the ages of 1 and 3 who live in low-income housing built before 1978 are especially at risk.”
Even though lead is regulated by federal law, its effects are most strongly felt at the local and state levels. Children who are exposed to lead often have cognitive issues that lead to disruptive and anti-social behavior that affects their academic performance. This leaves many schools in low-income areas having to not only deal with the effects of economic disparity, but also having to meet the needs of a larger number of children who require special educational resources.
Then there is the issue of municipal water supplies. A few years ago, Flint, Michigan made the news because its city water contained high amounts of lead. Flint is one of the poorest cities in the United States. Its substandard water system was seen as a microcosm of the differences between the “haves” and the “have nots”. Wealthier communities could afford modern water systems that eliminated lead while poorer ones survived on what had been built decades before.
Since lead poisoning becomes a local problem, it requires a local solution. That’s why municipal and county health departments need to make this a top priority. The good news about lead poisoning is that it can be identified at a very early age. When discovered, its lifelong consequences can be mitigated in a number of ways. One of the best approaches is to conduct early childhood testing regularly, especially in low-income areas where the prevalence of lead is known to be higher. This testing should incorporate both testing of the child and of the locations where the child may have been exposed. Local health departments can also play a vital role in educating parents about the danger of lead and helping them identify whether or not their children are ingesting lead.
Local public health departments are stretched to capacity trying to meet the needs of hundreds of millions of people with a limited budget and an almost endless stream of demand. But when it comes to creating the maximum benefit for comparatively little cost, testing for lead poisoning and educating parents about the dangers of this silent killer should be a top priority for any public health official in the United States.