Lead Poisoning Still a Public Health Threat

December 13, 2013

It’s easy to think that lead poisoning is a problem that disappeared decades ago, along with leaded gasoline or lead-based paints. But the problem plagues more than half a million U.S. children, more than 5,000 of whom live in Georgia. 

Lead-based paints and dust in older homes can put children at risk for lead poisoning.

Christy Kuriatnyk, director of the Lead and Healthy Homes program at the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH), said national public health measures, such as removing lead from paint in 1978 and gasoline in 1986, dramatically reduced the number of lead poisoning cases from previous decades, perhaps leading many to think that the problem had been solved forever.

“Lead poisoning has essentially been squeezed out by other public health priorities,” she said. “Even so, childhood lead poisoning remains a dangerous threat to those who are most vulnerable and subject to residing in older housing, where lead paint hazards still exist.”

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are nearly 24 million homes in the U.S. with these paint hazards and lead contaminated dust. About 4 million of these homes house young children, who tend to put their hands or other potentially contaminated objects into their mouths. Children who live in poverty and children of some racial and ethnic groups are at the greatest risk of lead poisoning, CDC notes.

Elevated levels of lead in a child’s body can cause kidney and brain damage, learning disabilities, hearing loss, speech delays, attention disorders and aggressive or violent behavior. Children poisoned by lead are seven times more likely to drop out of school and six times more likely to be involved in the criminal justice system.

There is no safe level of lead in the blood, according to CDC. But in April, the agency revised its definition of lead poisoning, lowering the threshold from 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood to 5 micrograms. That change nearly doubled the national estimate of the number of children at risk of lead poisoning in the U.S. But experts say even with that change, lead poisoning rates still appear to be declining.

Experts say the good news is that lead poisoning rates can easily continue to decline because the condition is entirely preventable. The key is to stop children from coming into contact with lead and to treat children who have been exposed. To prevent lead exposure:

·         Have your child’s blood tested for lead poisoning.

·         Test homes built before 1978 that may contain lead-based paint; DPH can send certified environmental health specialists to inspect paint and any other objects in a child’s environment for lead. When lead-based paint hazards are present in a tenant's home, the environmentalist may apply enforcement actions against the landlord to remediate hazards, if necessary.

·         Make sure children don’t have access to peeling paint or chewable surfaces with lead-based paint.

·         Pregnant women and children should not be present in housing built before 1978 that is undergoing renovation.

·         Use lead-safe work practices to remodel and hire lead-certified contractors.

·         Create barriers between living/play areas and lead sources.

·         Regularly wash children’s hands and toys, particularly before eating, after playing outside and before bedtime.

·         Regularly wet-mop floors and wet-wipe window components.

·         Prevent children from playing in bare soil; if possible, provide them with sandboxes.

To learn more about the Georgia Healthy Homes and Lead Poisoning Prevention program, visit dph.georgia.gov/lead

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