For most of us, the term “lead poisoning” immediately conjures up mental images of Flint, Michigan, where thousands of residents were exposed to unsafe levels of lead in their drinking water after the city switched water supplies in 2014.
But Flint is far from being the only location in the U.S. threatened by lead contamination from various sources – in fact, there are nearly 3,000 communities across the country where children were found to have levels of lead in their blood measuring more than twice that of those in Flint, and in more than 1,100 of those communities children showed lead blood levels at least four times higher.
That’s according to a newly-released study by Reuters, which examined lead testing results throughout the country. The Reuters study is more far-reaching than previous ones, in that it looked at results at the neighborhood level, which provided a more accurate “granular” view of which areas were particularly at risk for lead poisoning.
“Most U.S. states disclose data on the percentage of child blood tests that show elevated levels of lead. Yet this data, often for statewide or county-wide populations, is too broad to identify neighborhoods where children face the greatest risk.
“Instead, Reuters sought testing data at the neighborhood level, in census tracts or zip code areas, submitting records requests to all 50 states.”
For the U.S. census, counties are subdivided into tracts containing about 4,000 residents apiece, while each zip code contains an average of around 7,500 residents. In each area, a small number of children are tested yearly for lead poisoning.
Pinpointing neighborhoods where lead poisoning risk is highest
Using this highly-localized data, Reuters was able to pinpoint neighborhoods with lead contamination problems that might otherwise go undetected in the results of studies based on larger samples:
“For example: Across Maryland, 2 percent of childhood lead tests were high in recent years, just a small fraction of the rate in the worst-affected Baltimore tracts. In Flint, while 5 percent of children citywide recently tested with high blood lead levels, the highest rate has been in the downtown zip code, where about 11 percent tested high from 2005 to 2015.”
Since the use of lead in paint and gasoline was discontinued in the 1970s, average lead levels in children’s blood has dropped more than 90 percent, but there are many communities in which “legacy lead” is an issue – places where lead abatement has failed and lead-containing paint, plumbing and industrial waste has not yet been removed.
These lead-tainted communities are found scattered throughout the country – in rural mining areas where the water supplies have been contaminated, for example, and in inner cities where older houses expose children to lead through crumbling paint and pipes. The CDC says there are more than four million American homes in which children are exposed to high levels of lead.
Lack of federal funding to address lead contamination issues
The Reuters study should help to call attention to the issue, but unfortunately there‘s not much federal funding available to address the problem.
To provide some perspective, Congress has allocated $170 million in aid towards cleaning the lead up in Flint, Michigan – an amount ten times that of the CDC’s yearly budget for assisting states with their lead poisoning problems.
Small children are vulnerable to lead exposure through items they touch or put into their mouth. Even slightly elevated lead blood levels are associated with learning disabilities, lower IQ scores, behavioral problems and growth delays. Severe lead poisoning can be fatal.
Chelation therapy can remove heavy metals from the body, but once a child has been poisoned by lead, the effects can be “irreversible.”
Children should be screened for elevated blood lead levels around the age of one or two years.