Experts have estimated that nearly 500,000 children in the United States have lead poisoning. This is more than twice as high as previous estimates, according to health officials. Most of the increase is due to the government lowering the threshold for lead poisoning, resulting in more children being labeled as at risk. These estimates have focused on children younger than 6, who have been considered most at risk of neurological problems due to lead.
Lead poisoning is a large concern because of its effects on developing bodies. Too much lead in the blood can harm brains that are still developing and can result in a lower IQ. Lead can also harm a child’s kidneys and other organs, with high levels in the blood possibly resulting in coma, convulsions and death. Lower levels of lead in the blood have been found to reduce intelligence, impair hearing and behavior and cause a myriad of other problems.
When cases of lead poisoning are found, the typical course of action is to track down and remove the lead source while monitoring the children to make sure lead levels stay down. Once lead poisoning has been diagnosed, doctors often refer parents to local health departments to get their homes checked out to try to find the source of the problem. For extremely high levels, a special treatment to remove the lead from the blood is used.
Many children who get lead poisoning live in old homes and are poisoned when contaminated paint chips or dust is ingested. Other sources of lead poisoning include soil contaminated by old leaded gasoline, dust from industrial worksites and tainted drinking water. Lead poisoning used to be a greater issue in the United States, but cases of lead poisoning has declined significantly since lead has been removed from sources like paint and gasoline.
The estimate that 1 in 38 young children have been affected by lead poisoning suggests a need for more testing and preventive measures. Unfortunately, federal grant funding for such programs was eliminated last year by budget cuts. David Rosner, a Columbia University public health historian who writes books about lead poisoning, said that those cuts represent “an abandonment of children.” He continued on to say, “We’ve been acting like the problem was solved and this was a thing of the past.”