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Decades After Paint and Gas Bans, Kids Still Exposed to Dangerous Levels of Lead

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Lead was banned from paint in 1978, and from gasoline in 1996. But two years ago the water-poisoning scandal in Flint, Michigan, turned the nation's attention to the tragic truth that lead still threatens Americans – especially children.

A 2016 Reuters investigation determined that lead poisoning rates in nearly 3,000 American communities are at least double the rate in Flint. And EWG’s recently released Tap Water Database found almost 19,000 public water systems, in all 50 states, with at least one detection of lead between 2010 to 2015 above the level at which a formula-fed baby is at risk.

Lead contamination of tap water usually comes not from the water supply itself, but from corroded pipes that deliver water to homes. If your home is served by lead-based water lines, your tap water may be contaminated even if it's not reflected in your utility's annual water quality report. And lead in water is not the only threat.

Despite the 1978 ban, lead contamination from paint, as well from contaminated industrial sites and landfills, also remains a threat. A 2011 survey by the Department of Housing and Urban Development estimated that more than one in five American homes – mostly ones built before 1978 – have hazardous levels of lead in their paint, household dust or soil.

There is no safe level of lead exposure, but children are particularly at risk. Even minimal amounts of ingested lead can cause reduced IQ, behavioral disorders, abnormal brain development and seizures. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention define an elevated blood lead level in children at 5 micrograms per deciliter of blood. That's the level at which the CDC says public health officials should intervene to protect the child. But a child may suffer permanent damage from even lower blood lead levels.

A study published in the journal Pediatrics in May 2017 calculated, based on 1999-2010 data, that only about half of American children with elevated blood lead levels are effectively identified and treated. Insufficient testing is the major source of this shortcoming.

Here's what you can do to guard your family from lead exposures:

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