Friday, January 22, 2016

America's lead poisoning problem isn't just in Flint. It’s everywhere.

Updated by Sarah Frostenson on January 21, 2016

The city of Flint, Michigan, is in the midst of a terrible and rightly shocking lead poisoning crisis. The number of kids testing positive for elevated lead levels in their bloodstreams has doubled in the past few years, after the city switched to a new, cheaper water source.

This is an extreme case, but the problem of lead exposure among children is not a local Flint story. If you look at public health data, you begin to realize two things. The first is that it's actually really hard to get good data on which kids do and don't experience lead exposure, and which parents should worry about the issue.

Second: The data that is available shows that lead exposure is a pervasive issue in the United States. In some places outside of Flint, more than half of children test positive for lead poisoning.

Houston County, Alabama, is, in a lot of ways, an unremarkable place. It has just over 100,000 residents and sits in the southeast corner of the state, bordering Florida and Georgia. Median household income there is about $40,000, slightly lower than average for the state.

But there is one way Houston County does stand out: In 2014, it reported the highest rate of lead poisoning in the nation of any counties that sent data to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Houston County tested 12 children for lead poisoning in 2014, which it defines as kids who have more than 5 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood. Seven of those tests came back positive.


That means there are 1,570 counties we don't have any data on at all, because states are not mandated to submit their data to the CDC.
[Anyway, they won't have data to submit if they don't do the tests.]

Childhood lead exposure at nearly any level can lead to permanent learning disabilities, lower IQs, and even ADHD. Blood lead levels once believed to be safe — 30 μg/dL in the 1970s, then 25, then 15, then 10 — are now known to cause irreversible damage. The Environmental Protection Agency now says there is "no demonstrated safe concentration of lead in blood," and even levels as low as 2 μg/dL can reduce a child's IQ. CDC data estimates that almost 500,000 children in the US between the ages of 1 and 5 have a blood lead level above the 5 μg/dL standard.


A 2013 study from the CDC found that lead exposure impacts black communities disproportionately to their white counterparts.

Although blood lead levels among all US children have dropped dramatically since the late 1990s, high blood lead levels among black children were still more than twice as prevalent as among their white counterparts.


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