Do Newspapers Lead with Lead? A Content Analysis of How Lead Health Risks to Children Are Covered. (Features)

By Brittle, Christine; Zint, Michaela | Journal of Environmental Health, June 2003 | Go to article overview

Do Newspapers Lead with Lead? A Content Analysis of How Lead Health Risks to Children Are Covered. (Features)


Brittle, Christine, Zint, Michaela, Journal of Environmental Health


Introduction

Lead presents one of the most serious and well-documented health risks to young children (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency [U.S. EPA], 1938). The health effects of lead exposure include mental retardation, stunted growth, loss of motor control, permanent hearing and visual impairment, and, at high-enough levels, death (Needleman, 1990). Lead poisoning at a young age also has been linked with adverse consequences later on in life, such as increased juvenile delinquency, failure in school, and even an increased propensity to commit violent crimes such as homicides (Stretesky & Lynch, 2001).

Children may encounter lead almost anywhere, from their homes to their playgrounds. Lead paint continues to cause most cases of severe lead poisoning in children, although its use was outlawed in 1978 (Needleman, 1998). As older homes deteriorate or are renovated, lead paint may flake, creating a hazard of ingestion by children and dust contamination that is often invisible to the unaided human eye.

In the United States, about 7.6 percent of children under six years of age are estimated to have blood lead levels above those that federal agencies consider safe (the blood lead standard is currently 10 micrograms per deciliter [[micro]g/dl]) (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC], 2000). These children disproportionately live in poor, urban areas, and consequently, in some parts of the country, up to 30 percent of children may be exposed to unsafe levels of lead (CDC, 2000).

Public Concern and Knowledge About Lead as a Risk

Research on risk perception suggests that Americans are not sufficiently concerned about the risk posed by lead. Slovic's classic work (1987) explains this phenomenon by categorizing risks according to the extent that they comprise known and dreaded factors. The risk from lead paint exposure, Slovic finds, is consistently rated as slightly unknown and mostly undreaded (Slovic, 2000). Thus, this risk falls close to the origin on his two-factor plot, suggesting public ambivalence.

In addition, at least three studies have examined the knowledge American parents and other caregivers have of lead as a hazard. Mehta and Binns (1998) found respondents correctly answered questions about lead exposure, but not about lead-poisoning prevention, including the role of proper nutrition. For example, 88 percent of parents surveyed correctly replied that lead paint is more likely to exist in older homes, but only 32 percent knew that cleaning a home with soap and water is effective at removing lead. Polvika (1999) found that respondents did worst on questions about the leaching of lead into hot water as opposed to cold water (more leaching occurs in hot water), the positive benefits of activities such as cleaning windowsills or drinking milk, and the long-term health effects of lead exposure. Mahon (1997) found that parents are relatively aware of the risk from lead paint but unaware of the risk from lead dust (61 percent and 15 percent, respectively). These three studies suggest that parents and c hildren's caregivers possess limited knowledge about the risk from lead, are relatively unaware of nonpaint exposure sources such as lead dust, and are not well informed about reducing the risk of lead poisoning. These findings are troubling, because, while the risk associated with lead exposure is great, it is a risk that can be significantly reduced through preventive actions (Endres, Montgomery, & Welch, 2002).

Sources of Information About Lead and Its Risks

Little is known about where people obtain information about lead, or even about what information is available. One recent exception is a study identifying individual preventive actions covered in state agency brochures (Endres et al., 2002). Public-opinion polls suggest that mass media are a key source of information for public health and environmental threats in general. A study by McCallum, Hammond, and Covello (1991) found that "overwhelmingly, mass media sources, particularly newspapers and television news, were cited as the source of respondents' recent information on environmental risks. …

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