Earlier this year there was a big scare about lead levels in the water at a local elementary school in my area when results from a preliminary water screening indicated elevated levels coming from a cafeteria faucet. Mayhem ensued—not surprising, given the fact that growing evidence shows a child's exposure to lead can cause irreversible cognitive and behavioral problems.
Though blood lead concentrations have decreased dramatically in U.S. children over the past four decades, thanks to lead being banned in paint, gasoline, and other consumer products, between 2007 and 2010 more than 500,000 kids between the ages of 1 to 5 years had a blood lead concentration of more than 5 micrograms per deciliter. Until recently, kids were thought to have a blood lead "level of concern" if test results showed a concentration of 10 or more micrograms per deciliter. But, according to a new report from American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), extensive evidence now shows problems like lower IQ scores, inattention, aggression, and hyperactivity begin at levels less than half that amount.
There have also been significant reductions in tap water lead concentrations since the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) put the Lead and Copper Rule into effect in 1991, but as the current lead-laced water crisis in Flint, Michigan, shows, there are still major problems to address.
Meanwhile, too many children still live in housing with deteriorated lead-based paint and are at risk for exposure; an estimated 37 million homes in the U.S.—particularly those built before 1950—still contain lead-based paint. And some toys, dishware, hobby materials, and other consumer products still are made with lead as well. This is why the AAP says it should be a national priority to eliminate lead from anywhere children can be exposed to it.
To that end, they are calling for stricter regulations, expanded federal resources, and joint action by government officials and pediatricians in a just-released policy statement, "Prevention of Childhood Lead Toxicity," in order to better protect our kids. The AAP calls for new federal standards defining and testing for lead hazards in house dust, water and soil. It also urges legal requirements that lead be removed from contaminated housing and child care facilities and to ensure water fountains in schools do not exceed water lead concentrations of more than 1 part per billion.
"We now know that there is no safe level of blood lead concentration for children, and the best 'treatment' for lead poisoning is to prevent any exposure before it happens," said Jennifer Lowry, M.D., chair of the AAP Council on Environmental Health, in a statement.
According to Dr. Lowry, most existing lead standards fail to protect children. "They provide only an illusion of safety," she explained. "We need to expand the funding and technical guidance for local and state governments to remove lead hazards from children's homes, and we need federal standards that will truly protect children."
In the meantime, we asked her what we parents can do to make sure our kids are safe.
For starters, the AAP is recommending targeted screening of elevated blood lead concentrations in children between 12 and 24 months of age who live in areas where 25 percent or more of housing was built before 1960. All primary care providers of these kids should talk to their pediatricians about conducting the appropriate tests.
As far as testing the water in your own home goes, Dr. Lowry says there are test kits available, plus each state should have accredited assessors you can find by calling your local health department.
"Testing in one's home can be daunting," she told us, "but may be needed if a family lives in a home built before 1950 or has paint used before 1978."