No level of lead exposure is safe for children, pediatricians warn

June 22, 2016 Providence Health Team

A leading pediatric group is calling for stricter regulations governing the level of lead children are exposed to. Medical evidence shows that a child’s exposure to lead in paint, water, dirt or other sources, even at levels previously considered safe, can cause “irreversible cognitive and behavioral problems,” according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Existing regulations fail to protect children and “provide only an illusion of safety,” said Jennifer Lowry, M.D., chair of the academy’s Council on Environmental Health.

The academy has asked the government to tighten its standards for defining and testing for lead and says the metal should be removed from all contaminated housing and child care facilities.

Growing awareness of the problem

The medical community has long known that lead poses hazards to people who ingest it, especially children whose bodies are still developing. But the dangers have made headlines recently around the country, most prominently in Flint, Michigan, where lead-tainted water exceeded federal standards and led to widespread lead poisoning.

Tests have shown excessive lead in drinking water at schools and child care centers in all 50 states. In Portland, Oregon, high levels of lead have been found in the water in some homes, schools and public areas.

Lead occurs naturally in the environment and for many years was used in paint that was applied to everything from household walls to children’s toys. It appears in the water supply when it leaches from pipes containing lead. It accumulates in the blood when it is inhaled or swallowed.

According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, elevated lead in the bloodstream can cause:

  • Decreased IQ and academic achievement
  • Increased attention-related behaviors
  • Decreased kidney function
  • Reduced fetal growth when occurring in pregnant women
  • Delayed puberty
  • Hearing loss
  • Increased blood pressure and risk of hypertension

The institute and the pediatrics group say no amount of lead is safe.

“The best ‘treatment’ for lead poisoning is to prevent any exposure before it happens,” Lowry said.

Progress, but not enough

In the United States, lead is no longer used in gasoline, plumbing, paint or other consumer products. As a result, blood concentrations in children have declined sharply over the last four decades. But the pediatrics academy said even low levels cause more problems in children than was previously understood.

In 2005, the pediatrics group and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention listed a blood lead concentration of 100 parts per billion as the “level of concern.” But now, says the American Academy of Pediatrics, it’s clear that cognitive and behavioral problems can occur at half that level.

“Despite the dramatic reductions in blood lead levels,” notes the group’s report, “lead toxicity accounts for an estimated total loss of 23 million IQ points among a six-year cohort of contemporary U.S. children.”

You can read the academy’s call for stricter regulations here. You can read its full report here. The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences has published a four-page fact sheet here.

If you are concerned that you or your loved ones have been exposed to lead, talk to your health care provider. You can find a Providence provider here.

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