Lead exposure in children is lower now than it was in the past, but pediatricians say that current regulations are inadequate. On Monday, the American Academy of Pediatrics’ environmental health council published a report in the journal Pediatrics stating “Most existing lead standards fail to protect children,” according to NPR. Although lead has been taken out of products such as paint and gasoline, lead exposure is still a current problem.
The pediatricians take issue with the current standards for the amount of lead present in paint, water, dust and soil. They say the thresholds are not based on health standards, but on convenience. As a result, these standards create “an illusion of safety.” Dr. Jennifer Lowry, a co-author of the report and a medical toxicologist with Children’s Mercy in Kansas City, Mo., said “We’ve taken lead out of the paint and out of the gasoline, but the history is still present,” according to NPR.
Lead exposure is associated with developmental problems; it may affect IQ, behavior and attention. “Lead is a neurotoxin,” says Lowry, according to NPR. “It gets into the brain and it can cause damage.” The metal interferes with physiological processes by taking the place of calcium or iron. Children are more affected by lead exposure than adults.
Lead has been linked to developmental problems at low levels, although the exact relationship for an individual child is hard to determine. The current threshold for lead exposure is 5 micrograms per deciliter, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If a child has this amount or more in their blood, it means that they are in the 2.5 percent of children with the highest blood lead levels in the country. Lowry points out that this standard is ineffective at preventing lead exposure, because only detects the problem afterward. “But at that point, when we find out that they have an elevated lead level, the harm has already been done,” she says, according to NPR. “We cannot have our children be canaries in the coal mine, where they get exposed first and then we have to try to fix it. If we want to actually do the right thing, we should prevent it from happening in the first place.”
Children may be exposed to lead from old paint or plumbing. Homes built on former industrial sites may also be a source of contaminated dust, water and soil.
The academy is calling for several changes intended to prevent lead exposure and address current issues. One recommendation includes pediatricians and primary care physicians proactively testing children for high blood lead levels, especially if they are between 1 and 2 years old and live in homes built prior to 1960. The pediatricians also wanted updated national limits for lead in house dust, water and soil. Additionally, the academy calls for federal funding that would be used to remove current sources of lead exposure, such as lead and paint from public housing and lead service lines in homes. “We should know where the old houses are that were built before 1960, where the soil is next to the highways, where we have these lead problems and actually fix it before we send our kids out to live in those environments,” Lowry says.