Lead Poisoning: The Single Most Significant Environmental Health Threat to American Children

By Marcia Anderson

Lead poisons huge numbers of people of all ages and walks of life, but most vulnerable are the very young. Although lead can affect adults, those most sensitive to lead’s adverse effects — and at highest risk — are infants, fetuses and children up to six years. Lead is now recognized as the single most significant environmental health threat to American children.

Lead in dirt is a persisting problem, which is why it is increasingly important to screen your child for lead poisoning based on the risk factors indicated in this post.

Special vulnerability of children: Children are in double jeopardy from the ill effects of lead, because their highest potential for exposure occurs due to their behavioral patterns: children engage in more hand-to-mouth activity than adults, and therefore ingest more contaminants in dust or dirt. This high exposure comes at a time when children’s bodies are building their vital organs and bones and lead is particularly toxic to their developing nervous systems. In addition, children’s bodies are not as efficient at depositing circulatory lead into their bones, and thus a higher percentage of the total lead in their bodies becomes available to exert toxic effects on their internal organs.

Children are usually exposed to lead by swallowing paint chips or dirt contaminated with lead. Since lead was an ingredient of paint prior to 1977, children living in older homes with chipping paint are the most at risk for lead poisoning. Children need to be screened for lead poisoning, especially if they have any of the following risk factors: If you live or often visit a house that was built before 1978 and has been remodeled in the past 6 months, or if you live in a zip code where more than 27% of the homes were built before 1950. New York State requires health care providers to test all children with a blood lead test at age 1 and again at age 2. Up to age 6, your doctor or nurse should ask you about ways your child may have had contact with lead. Check with your local health department to see if you live in a high risk area.

How lead poisons the human body: There are two ways by which most lead poisoning occurs: ingestion and, to a lesser extent, inhalation. Once in the blood, lead is distributed primarily among blood, soft tissue (such as kidney, bone marrow, liver, and the brain), and mineralizing tissue (such as bone and teeth).  Inhaled lead is completely absorbed by the body.

Low-level chronic lead exposure in childhood may alter secretion of the human growth hormone, thus reducing the stature of children and increase their chances for obesity. Exposure to lead may result in irreversible-cognitive dysfunction and behavioral disorders  The cumulative nature of lead buildup in the body requires that attention be paid to low levels of lead intake, for continuing exposure to low doses can add up to significant exposure over time. Death or massive brain damage can occur in children with untreated blood-lead concentrations of 150 microgram per deciliter. A blood level of 15 microgram per deciliter may cause cognitive disturbances such as reduced attention span and memory, learning disabilities, and lowered IQs.

The EPA has concluded that no amount of lead is safe for a child.

Concerned about lead in your environment? Go to www.epa.gov/lead , or call 311 in New York City or call the National lead hotline: 1-800-424-LEAD

About the author: Marcia is the bed bug and vector management specialist for the Pesticides Program in Edison. She has a BS in Biology from Monmouth, second degree in Environmental Design-Landscape Architecture from Rutgers, Masters in Instruction and Curriculum from Kean, and is a PhD in Environmental Management candidate from Montclair – specializing in Integrated Pest Management and Environmental Communications. Prior to EPA, and concurrently, she has been a professor of Earth and Environmental Studies, Geology and Oceanography at Kean University for 14 years.

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