Lead Poisoning Prevention Gains Attention but Loses Funding

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THE LENS ON lead poisoning prevention became more focused after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed the standards on what is considered dangerous child blood lead levels this summer. But a reduction in state and federal funding to address the problem of childhood lead poisoning is blurring the vision.

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Doctors should report any level of lead that is found to be five micrograms per deciliter of blood or higher in a child's bloodstream to a parent or guardian, according to the new standards that were announced in May. The level is a significant change from the previous 10 micrograms, which was altered after data collected by CDC officials showed that even lead levels between two and five micrograms had adverse effects on a child's academic abilities such as reading and writing. Under the new measurement for blood lead levels, about 535,000 children in the United States would be considered to have high blood lead levels, said Mary Jean Brown, CDC's chief of Healthy Homes and Lead Poisoning Prevention.

Brown said the new level should not preclude a child with any level of lead in her or his bloodstream from being treated. After parents are notified of blood lead levels, they must consult with a doctor on treatments such as chelation therapy, during which a child takes medication that removes heavy metals such as lead from the body and gets rid of them through urination.

"Our first message on the health side is to make sure that people understand clearly that five is not the new 10," Brown told The Nation's Health. "The committee and CDC concurred that we're trying to change the way we're thinking about this, that a child does not have to have a qualified blood lead level (to be at risk). I think that message is getting out there."

Children living in housing built before 1978 in poverty-stricken areas are at high risk for lead exposure due to the existence of lead-based wall paint, according to CDC. The risk is also high among children ages 6 and younger who frequently touch surfaces or toys containing lead. However, other sources of lead risks for children include cosmetics, candies imported from Mexico, cookware and home remedies.

Short-term preventive measures for parents whose children are at risk for lead exposure include mopping areas with loose paint chips and dust, finding U.S. Environmental Protection Agency-certified contractors for lead removal work and wiping feet on a household mat if the homeowners work around lead on a daily basis.

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While lead poisoning is mainly thought of as a risk for children, adults can be endangered as well, especially those who work in construction and manufacturing. According to CDC, about 95 percent of high adult blood lead levels occur among people who work in painting, paper hanging, zinc ore mining and battery manufacturing. Adult lead exposure can harm cardiovascular and reproductive systems as well as kidney function, CDC said. A National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health blood screening program for adults -- known as the Adult Blood Lead Epidemiology and Surveillance program--targets adults with high blood lead levels via programs in 41 states.

The CDC decision to change child blood lead level standards means a greater emphasis on primary prevention is needed, said Deborah Cory-Slechta, PhD, a member of the Advisory Committee on Childhood Lead Poisoning, who spoke at a session on the new standards at APHA's 140th Annual Meeting in October. …