The majority of kids in the US have lead pumping around their bloodstream despite bans and regulations restricting the use of this toxic metal decades ago, according to a huge study in JAMA Pediatrics.
While most of the young children had relatively small traces of lead in their blood, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) both agree that there is no known safe level of lead in a child's blood. Furthermore, 1 in 50 of the kids in the study was found to have significantly elevated blood lead levels (5 micrograms per deciliter), which could take a toll on their health and development.
“We are still living with the effects of ‘legacy lead’ that was put in our environment decades ago,” Dr Marissa Hauptman, lead study author from the Pediatric Environmental Health Center at Boston Children’s Hospital, said in a statement.
To reach these findings, researchers from Boston Children’s Hospital and Quest Diagnostics studied blood samples from 1.14 million children under the age of 6 from all 50 US states and the District of Columbia between October 2018 and February 2020.
Just over 50 percent of the children tested (576,092 kids) had detectable levels of lead in their blood and 21,172 children (1.9 percent) had elevated blood lead levels. The team also discovered that detectable and elevated blood lead levels increased significantly in kids living in pre-1950s housing and low-income areas. Like many public health threats, people in poverty are hit the hardest.
It’s hard to understate the impact that lead has had on global health. There’s a vast amount of sturdy scientific evidence that shows exposure to lead can seriously harm a child’s health by causing damage to the brain and nervous system. In turn, this can result in personality changes, behavior issues, lower IQ, lower impulse control, increased violence, and underperformance in school. Some research has even been linked to the rise of crime in the industrialized world in the late 1960s as a consequence of putting lead in gasoline. Leaded gas isn't the only problem, though. Lead-based paint and lead pipes became commonplace in homes during the late 19th century and early 20th century, exposing countless people to potentially dangerous levels of lead.
Scientists became increasingly aware of lead’s impact on health over the latter half of the 20th century, amounting to a ban on lead-based paints for residential use in 1978 in the US. Although bans and regulations have helped to drop blood lead levels in recent decades, this new study shows the legacy of lead still haunts the world. The CDC estimates that 24 million homes built before 1978 in the US have significant lead-based paint hazards, namely in the form of deteriorated paint and lead-contaminated house dust.
“The fact we’re still talking about lead in 2021 indicates that we need to invest in public health infrastructure and make sure families, pregnant women, infants, and children are as safe as possible,” Hauptman adds. “We need to invest more in our housing stock and not rely on residents and landlords to mitigate lead hazards. In Massachusetts, only 10 to 15 percent of homes have ever been inspected for lead.”