By Jane E. Brody Published: January 17, 2006
There's no question that the amount of lead in children's blood has dropped significantly in recent decades, much to the benefit of their brains and bodies. There's also no question that children who are still being permanently damaged by excessive lead levels live mainly at the poverty level or near it, in neighborhoods where they can be poisoned by lead from contaminated paint, water, soil and dust.
However, no one at any level of society, not even those with seven-figure incomes, can afford to be complacent about the exposure of children to lead in home and play environments.
Here are some disturbing facts important to everyone concerned about the damage lead can cause and its individual and societal costs.
About a quarter of the nation's children are exposed to lead at home, and more than 400,000 children are found each year to harbor amounts of lead deemed hazardous to normal mental and physical development.
Environmental exposure to lead in early childhood is a prelude to a host of societal ills. It is associated with an increased risk of reading problems, school failure, delinquency and criminal behavior.
There is no safe threshold for lead levels in the blood. In other words, any amount of lead is a potential hazard to a developing child.
Studies have shown that half the amount of lead deemed acceptable by the United States government can inflict notable damage. In fact, the intellectual harm inflicted by lead is proportionately greater at levels below 10 micrograms per deciliter of blood, the level now considered acceptable by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Risks associated with lead exposure begin in the womb, and not just from lead acquired by pregnant women. During pregnancy, lead stored in a woman's bones can leach out, get into her blood and injure the fetus.
A child need not be poor to be exposed to lead. Children can be harmed by lead in toys, for example. Lead paint was banned for indoor use in 1978, so those living in homes built before then can be contaminated by lead in dust when windows are opened or when renovations are done.
Children are not the only ones whose health is endangered by lead. In adults, whose bodies may have stored lead from exposures incurred decades earlier, lead is associated with such problems as cardiovascular disease, tooth decay, miscarriage, kidney disease, mental decline and cataracts.