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More than half of young American children who underwent lead testing had detectable levels of the poisonous metal in their blood, according to a massive study of more than a million kids living in the world’s richest country.
There’s no safe amount of lead that a kid can have in their blood, and the negative effects of lead poisoning—like learning disabilities, anemia, hearing problems, and more—can happen even with low exposure levels, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Monday’s study, published in the peer-reviewed journal JAMA Pediatrics, found that more than 50% of the 1.1 million kids younger than 6 years old that were tested between October 2018 and February 2020 had some level of lead in their blood.
A “detectable” level—or what was found in half the children—was described as 1 microgram per deciliter or more, while an “elevated” level was defined as 5 micrograms per deciliter or more.
Nearly 2% of all the kids in the study clocked an elevated level 5 micrograms per deciliter of lead in their blood or more—meeting the CDC’s threshold for a public health intervention, and the level that’s most often researched.
The CDC has considered lowering its blood lead threshold for young kids to 3.5 micrograms per deciliter.
Although blood lead levels have dropped significantly in the past few decades thanks to better regulations and public health efforts, disparities in who’s harmed by the toxin—sometimes found in paint chips or water pipes—persist. Young kids who were poor, on public insurance, living in majority-Black or Hispanic neighborhoods, or living in pre-1950s housing were more likely to have detectable lead in their blood, according to the study, which examined clinical lab data from Quest Diagnostics.
“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,” Marissa Hauptman, the assistant director at the Pediatric Environmental Health Center at Boston Children’s Hospital and a lead author of the study, said in an article for her hospital’s website. “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.”
Even so, researchers did not find “associations between lead exposure and elevated [blood lead levels] in children residing in zip codes with predominantly Black or Hispanic and Latinx populations,” but non-white kids disproportionately rely on programs like Medicaid and are more likely to be impoverished. The most prominent example of mass lead contamination also occurred in a majority-Black community: Flint, Michigan.
On top of harming children, doing nothing will cost America. Just helping kids born in 2018 reach a blood lead level of zero would save the country some $84 billion over their lifetimes, researchers wrote—largely because children would be able to reach their full productivity potential.