Bad News on LeadApr 20, 2003 | Sacramento Bee To the list of things we know about lead poisoning that it's treatable and preventable we can add this: It may be more prevalent than we thought. The New England Journal of Medicine has published a five-year study suggesting that lead may be harmful in young children even at much lower blood concentrations than were previously considered harmful.
The study found that children with blood lead concentrations of less than 10 micrograms per deci-liter showed lower intellectual abilities as a result of their exposure. (10 micrograms is the current risk threshold used by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.) Children with 10-microgram readings had IQ scores roughly seven points lower than those with one-microgram readings. The study controlled for numerous other factors, such as family income and mother's intelligence, that might have affected the findings.
The findings call for a serious reexamination of the state's approach to prevention and treatment of lead poisoning, which is caused mostly by children inhaling lead particles contained in older house paint or in contaminated soil. The state's approach, unfortunately, has a history of negligence.
Two years ago, the state Bureau of Audits blasted the Department of Health Services for its handling of lead poisoning in children. At that time, an estimated 38,000 California children under age 6 had blood lead levels high enough (under the old standard, mind you) to need treatment. The DHS has the authority to require all children 6 and younger whose families are on medical assistance to be tested for lead. Yet just one in four children in that category were getting the test. The audit estimated that the lax approach to testing meant that just 10 percent of those with elevated levels were actually being identified. Under a more stringent poisoning standard, this picture looks even bleaker.
Dr. Valerie Charlton, who began overseeing DHS' lead poisoning prevention efforts after the audit, says the department has been more aggressive about educating doctors and that testing has increased dramatically. DHS recently won legal authority to collect lab results for all blood tests conducted in the state, which should enable it to determine which doctors are doing their parts, but also examine the test results. That ought to foster a more coherent statewide campaign, which should also include greater guidance to parents concerned about protecting their children from lead.