A federal advisory committee has recommended that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lower the threshold for diagnosing lead poisoning in children, the first recommendation of its kind in 20 years and one that would mean hundreds of thousands more kids meet the standard for lead poisoning.
Lead poisoning, as any parent knows, is serious: a high level of lead in the blood harms developing brains, kidneys and other organs, and the advisory committee relied on recent research linking any elevated levels of lead in the blood with adverse cognitive and other physiological consequences. Those effects appear to be irreversible.
Lead exposure most typically comes from exposure to paint in homes built before 1978. “All homes built before 1978 are likely to contain some lead-based paint,” says the C.D.C. on its Web site, but it’s the deterioration of that paint into contaminated flakes and dust that poses a danger. A close friend of mine moved into a new home just months before her youngest child’s birth, and had the painted surfaces in the hundred-plus-year-old house tested for lead — but in spite of a clean test at the time, her son, now a toddler, tested positive for lead poisoning a few weeks ago. Her best guess for the source of the problem, while she waits for more testing, is minor repairs her husband made to a windowsill, and the opening of a part of the house which was used for storage, and might not have been tested.
Lowering the threshold at which lead poisoning is diagnosed primarily means more attention to an existing problem. Right now in the United States, about 250,000 children are considered to suffer from lead poisoning. Lowering the blood level required for the official diagnosis from 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood to 5 would raise that number by hundreds of thousands, if not more. Towns and communities often use the number of local children with a lead poisoning diagnosis to determine whether to screen all children (which the C.D.C. recommends) or implement other prevention strategies.
A lawyer who handles both tenant and personal injury claims associated with lead exposure, says a lower standard is likely to place a greater responsibility on property owners, who are responsible for maintaining safe conditions in their buildings (particularly in New York City, which has one of the strictest lead-abatement laws in the country). A change “may ultimately make living conditions safer for children,” Mr. Baum said. Medicaid, too, bases the treatment (and amelioration) it covers on the levels set by the C.D.C. Currently, Medicaid only funds services like family lead education, follow-up testing, and referrals to social services agencies for assistance with the problem for children with a blood lead level greater than 10 micrograms. Lowering the levels that require attention may challenge local agencies to find funding for more prevention, screening and follow-up. But the words “the effects appear to be irreversible” strike fear into every parent’s heart.
Flanzig and Flanzig, LLP-www.flanziglaw.com