Qn of the Month: Is Childhood Lead Poisoning Still an Issue in the US?

A: Yes, unfortunately. Long used in human history for its usefulness in a multitude of products, the unpleasant side effects of lead such as sterility and mental confusion have also been known in ancient times. In the United States, lead mining and smelting began soon after the first colonial settlement. Since the advent of the use of tetraethyl lead in automobiles to improve engine performance and reduce engine knock in the early 1920s, leaded gasoline remained important in America until the 1970s when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began efforts to reduce the lead content in gasoline fuel. Enough evidence had finally been collected on the adverse effects of lead on the health such as permanent nerve damage, anemia or mental retardation in children. Further steps were taken at the Federal level. In the late 1990s, the Lead Contamination Control Act of 1988 authorized the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to start program efforts to eliminate childhood lead poisoning in the United States. This created the CDC Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program, which is still ongoing today. Finally, in January 1996, EPA called for a total phase out of leaded fuel.

In recent years, almost 60 childhood lead poisoning prevention programs have been funded to develop, implement, and evaluate lead poisoning prevention activities. The CDC Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program also led to the development of the Childhood Blood Lead Surveillance System through which states can report data to CDC. So has childhood lead poisoning been eradicated? Not quite.

Today, lead is still an issue, especially in certain parts of the country. This is most clearly seen in the recent Flint, Michigan crisis with lead contamination in the drinking water. However, there are other areas in the United States, such as in Houston Alabama, where more than half the children show elevated blood lead levels. Another issue is that although the Centers for Disease Control collects data on child lead poisoning rates, only about half the counties in the United States reported it in 2014. So unfortunately the data may not be very helpful, depending on where you live, as the data may not be reported or much information collected.

Alarmingly, many states have not submitted any data to CDC. These include Alaska, Arkansas, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Carolina, South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming. For more information see source 4 (http://www.vox.com/2016/1/21/10811004/lead-poisoning-cities-us). States should definitely be made to report lead poisoning rates in children as a requirement. To find out more about the impact of lead on public health in the United States, see these upcoming presentations: American Public Health Association Webinars.

(Sources:

  1. CDC’s Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. http://www.cdc.gov/nceh/lead/about/program.htm. Updated February 9, 2015. Accessed January 31, 2016.
  2. Lewis, J. United States Environmental Protection Agency. Lead Poisoning: A Historical Perspective. EPA Journal. May 1985. http://www.epa.gov/aboutepa/lead-poisoning-historical-perspective. Access January 31, 2016.
  3. EPA Takes Final Step in Phaseout of Leaded Gasoline. United States Environmental Protection Agency. EPA press release. January 29, 1996. http://www.epa.gov/aboutepa/epa-takes-final-step-phaseout-leaded-gasoline. Accessed January 31, 2016.
  4. Frostenson S. Vox.com. America’s lead poisoning problem isn’t just in Flint. It’s everywhere. http://www.vox.com/2016/1/21/10811004/lead-poisoning-cities-us . Updated January 21, 2016. Accessed January 31, 2016.
  5. Nelson L. Vox.com. Flint, Michigan, tried to save money on water. Now its children have lead poisoning. http://www.vox.com/2015/12/15/10237054/flint-lead-poisoning. Accessed January 31, 2016.)
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