CDC toughens standards for lead poisoning in children

Robin Wulffson MD's picture
lead poisoning, children, brain damage, health hzard
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Sadly, lead poisoning is not an uncommon health hazard for children. Presence of the mineral in the body of a child can harm the developing brain and lower IQ. On May 16, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that it had lowered the threshold for lead poisoning in young children. The new standard, which was last modified in 1991, will mean that hundreds of thousands more youngsters could be diagnosed with high levels of lead.

The new standard applies to children under the age of six years. Too much lead can harm a child's brain, kidneys and other organs. High blood levels can cause coma, convulsions, and death. Lower levels can reduce intelligence, impair hearing and behavior, as well as cause a multitude of other health problems. Because lead poisoning often occurs with no obvious symptoms, it frequently goes unrecognized. The CDC notes that recent research persuaded experts and government officials that young children could be harmed from lead levels in their blood that are lower than the old standard. The agency notes that approximately 250,000 US children aged one through five years have blood lead levels greater than 10 micrograms per deciliter of blood, which was the former level at which CDC recommends public health actions be initiated.

The new standard is half that amount: 5 micrograms per deciliter.

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Experts estimate that between 77,000 and 255,000 children had high levels of lead with the old standard; however, many of them are undiagnosed. The new standard could increase the count to 450,000 cases. Despite the new more stringent standards, CDC officials note that they do not have additional funds to help physicians or local health departments do more testing of children or detect/decontaminate contaminated environments.

Lead poisoning is detected through a blood test. The metal that was commonly present in paint and gasoline for decades. Customarily, children who get lead poisoning live in old homes that are in poor repair or under renovation. They pick up paint chips or dust and put it in their mouth. Lead was banned in paint in 1978 and banned as a gasoline additive in 1996. Children have also been poisoned by soil contaminated by old leaded gasoline and from dust tracked in from industrial worksites. Most cases of lead poisoning are managed by determining and removing the lead source; then, and monitoring the children to make sure lead levels stay low. A special treatment to remove lead and other heavy metals known as chelation is used for very high levels.

The health focus is on young children who are most affected by lead poisoning. There is not a threshold for older children or adults; however, a pregnant woman should have a blood lead level below 5 micrograms to protect the developing fetus. Most cases in adults come from manufacturing jobs or hobbies. In many location, city and county health departments are empowered to provide many of the services for lead poisoned children. Unfortunately, however, those departments have lost more than 34,000 jobs in the last three years because of budget cuts.

Reference: CDC

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