The Silent Epidemic; Lead Poisoning - Still a Scourge

By Huebner, Albert L. | The Nation, January 25, 1986 | Go to article overview
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The Silent Epidemic; Lead Poisoning - Still a Scourge


Huebner, Albert L., The Nation


In 1971 the American Academy of Pediatrics stated officially what had become obvious to many of its members much earlier: "Lead poisoning in childhood is a preventable disease." Congress and government agencies responded to the academy's call for removing excess lead from the environment and for finding and treating children who already had dangerous amounts of lead in their bodies. Yet fifteen years later, lead poisoning is a serious childhood disease.

While death, blindness or severe mental retardation from lead rarely occur these days, lead poisoning in children is more widespread and more subtly destructive than anyone thought in 1971. The most recent figures, contained in a comprehensive survey conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics in 1976-80, showed that 780,000 children under age 6--about 4 percent of the nation's kids--had unsafe blood lead leves. Since then, the offcial "toxicity alert level," at which medical attention is required, has been revised downward, so the number of children at risk is considerably higher than the health service estimated.

The damage done to this large group of children is enormous. Recent findings cited by the Environmental Protection Agency indicate that even "safe" lead concentrations interfere with Vitamind D metabolism and blood chemistry. Earlier research established that low levels of lead in children's blood can cause hyperactivity, learning difficulties and an extensive range of behavioral problems--disabilities that are likely to plague victims for a lifetime.

Although food and drinking water may contain the toxic metal, the major sources of the lead that ends up in children's bodies are paint and automobile exhaust. The danger of the fumes were demonstrated, ironically, by attempts to protect machinery. When cars began using catalytic converters, most owners followed manufacturers' instructions to use unleaded fuel, which is needed to keep the converters working properly. Vernon Houk, director of the Center for Environmental Health, monitored lead levels in children in sixty major roles and found a decrease from 1976 to 1980 that corresponded closely to the reduction in use of leaded gasoline during that period. Houk thinks that leaded gas, contributed about 20 percent of the lead measured in the blood of those children with dangerous concentrations.

Despite this inadvertent reduction, it wasn't until 1980--eight years after the E.P.A. first proposed regulations aimed at decreasing the amount of lead in gasoline blends--that a standard went into effect. But the next year, the National Petroleum Refiners Association asked Vice PResident George Bush's special task force on regulatory relief to abolish it. Bush, a former oil man, apparently liked the idea and lobbied then-E.P.A. administrator Anne Gorsuch Burford. An all-out attack by physicians, scintists and public health officials forced the E.P.A. to maintain the standard, despite Gorsuch's desire to dismantle it.

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