LEAD POISONING: Millions of Kids Affected, Still at Risk
Though most parents are unaware of it, lead remains one of the most serious environmental health hazards for American children, U.S. News and World Report reports. According to the EPA, approximately 1.7 million children have been affected by lead in sources such as old paint, water pipes and soil. Those numbers translate into 4.4% of all children, and 22% of African-American children who live in older homes. Lead is thought to affect the brain by disrupting the chemical processes of neurotransmitters, a fact especially sobering considering that 890,000 children affected by lead are under 6 -- an age when the brain and nervous system are most vulnerable. Scientists believe that lead levels once thought acceptable can decrease IQ scores and cause learning disabilities, hyperactivity, attention deficit disorders, and aggressive behavior. Herbert Needleman, pediatric psychiatrist and lead expert at the University of Pittsburgh, said, "I don't know of any other disease as disabling as lead poisoning that strikes 1 in 25 children that people wouldn't be screaming about." The biggest threat to children today isn't eating paint chips or lead in gasoline, as it was in the 1970s, but rather the microscopic powdered lead that results from the decomposition of lead-based paint found in pre-1978 homes. Sixty-four million homes in the U.S. still contain lead paint, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has identified 5 million to 15 million of those homes as "very hazardous."
As awareness of lead's detrimental effects increases, the lead industry is being taken to court. Personal-injury attorneys and several state and city prosecutors are holding paint, pigment and gas-additive manufacturers responsible for the damage lead has done. The EPA will meet in Washington this week to discuss strengthening reporting requirements for industries that release lead into the environment. But the lead industry contends that it was unaware of the potential threat to children from lead-painted walls, and it fears an outcome similar to what tobacco companies experienced, settling because of a landslide of lawsuits. The lead industry is not the only target: the state of Missouri has just filed suit against Healthcare USA of Missouri and Prudential Health Care Plan, two Medicaid providers, alleging that they neglected to screen pediatric patients for lead, even though federal law states that children on Medicaid must be tested by the age of 2.
The Task Ahead
Needleman believes screening could have tremendous benefits, as children with elevated lead levels were seven times as likely to drop out of high school and six times as likely to have a reading disability. Ruth Ann Norton, executive director of the Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning, said, "We estimate that 20% to 30% of the special education caseload in urban centers results from lead poisoning." In 1991, the CDC conducted a study that showed that removing the lead from homes would result in a $62 billion savings in medical and special education costs over 20 years. But removing lead is costly, and at $2,500 to $10,000 per home, the recently designated $56 million for lead poisoning control from HUD scarcely begins to tackle the overwhelming task (Spake/Couzin, 12/20 issue).