An Invisible Threat to Our Nation’s Children

By Kelly Miterko, October 23, 2017

500,000. That’s the estimated number of one- to five-year-old children in the U.S. who had seriously elevated levels of lead in their blood last year. And that’s half a million too many.

Even though lead paint was restricted from use in homes in 1978, and lead plumbing pipes were prohibited in 1986, lead continues to be present in our lives today—even though we may not be able to see it or know that it’s there. In fact, approximately 3.6 million homes with children have lead paint hazards, and there are up to 10 million lead pipes that provide water to an estimated 15 to 22 million people across the country.

While paint and water are generally the most common sources of lead exposure for children, they can come into contact with lead from other sources as well. Lead can still be found in some consumer products, like candy and jewelry, and leaded fuel is still used by certain airplanes, resulting in lead emissions into the air.

Research has shown that there is no safe level of lead in blood, and even at low levels, lead can have devastating lifelong consequences for young children. It affects brain development and the ability to control impulses and grasp information, making children more likely to struggle in school, drop out, get into trouble with the law, underperform at work, and earn less throughout their lives.

The recent crisis in Flint, Michigan, increased needed attention to the issue of lead poisoning, but it’s unfortunate that it took children being exposed to lead to spur action. And Flint is just one of many communities grappling with lead hazards.

The Health Impact Project, a collaboration of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and The Pew Charitable Trusts, recently released a report outlining strategies that are most effective and cost-efficient for addressing the problem of lead exposure based on the best science available. The report—10 Policies to Prevent and Respond to Childhood Lead Exposure—calls for comprehensive action to address all sources of exposure and to ensure that children who have already been exposed have access to evidence-based academic and behavioral interventions. Findings from the report show that the investments made now to address this issue will pay for themselves in better public health and higher achievement and productivity over time.

While significant work remains to reduce the number of children exposed to lead, the good news is that many policymakers and community leaders have taken steps to mitigate and prevent lead exposure. In my hometown of Rochester, New York, regular inspections are required of most rental housing built before 1978 to check for lead paint hazards. Since this policy was implemented over 10 years ago, the proportion of children with high blood lead levels has declined throughout the city and surrounding county.

Rochester is one of several cities and states featured in the report for their successful efforts, and lessons can be learned from the approaches these communities have taken so that as a nation, we can work to remove this pervasive public health threat once and for all.

For too long, we’ve waited for children to be poisoned before acting to find and address lead hazards. If we want to help the next generation be healthier and reach their full potential, it’s time to take a more proactive approach, and this report can help policymakers at the federal, state, and local level do just that. Our kids are worth the investment.

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