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March 20, 2017

CDC considering new guidelines for levels in children as lead is still a danger for millions of American families

by: Fidelma L. Fitzpatrick

As every parent knows, early childhood development plays a crucial role in shaping practically every aspect of our lives leading into adulthood, including health, learning ability, and social-emotional competence. So imagine how devastating it can be to learn that, despite your best efforts to steer your child down the right path, his or her development will forever be hindered due to toxic exposure in your own home.

For all the talk in recent decades of the danger lead poisoning poses to the most precious among us — our children — lead is still a commonly found substance in at least 4 million American households, showing up in chipped paint, contaminated water, dirt and dust.

While there is no safe blood level of lead in children, at least the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is now taking lead poisoning more seriously, seriously enough to consider further lowering the threshold for the level of concern for blood lead levels. The CDC last updated its standards in 2012 when it determined 5 micrograms per deciliter, down from 10 or more micrograms per deciliter, was cause for concern in children under six-years-old and, at that time, also recommended public health intervention. The agency is now debating lowering that measurement to 3.5 micrograms per deciliter, a move that could potentially enable doctors to identify more children in need of help. 

The CDC currently estimates that roughly half a million U.S. children under age six have blood lead levels above the current threshold, with minority and low-income families in older, poorly maintained housing disproportionally affected. The issue was the subject of public outrage across the country in the wake of the shocking, and still ongoing Flint Water Crisis, where 9,000 children were exposed to lead through toxic tap water. News reports that followed made an issue of high lead levels in communities across the country, thousands of which reported levels at least double those found in Flint, Mich.

Unfortunately, only 11 states and Washington, D.C. mandate lead testing for all children: Alabama, Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont. Michigan and California are weighing the benefits of such a policy, and lawmakers across the country should do the same. Mandatory tests would reduce the number of children who suffer prolonged lead exposure and effects, which cannot be reversed.

Because lead is colorless, odorless and tasteless, the presence of lead and symptoms of exposure are difficult to detect. While prevention of exposure to any level of lead is the only way to eliminate the danger, the CDC should not hesitate to further lower the threshold and allow for better and earlier detection and public health involvement.