Children are still being exposed to lead—policymakers can change that

BlogEarly ChildhoodSep 6 2017

In early 2016, shocking headlines about Flint, Michigan’s water crisis dominated the news cycle for months, but high lead levels aren’t just an issue for Flint. Lead continues to be a problem for many of America’s children, despite marked successes of federal policies in reducing the use of lead in common products—for example, through regulations that phased out lead in gasoline between 1978 and 1996.

Even today, exposure among children comes from a variety of sources, especially from deteriorating lead-based paint in older buildings, lead in pipes that deliver drinking water to homes and schools, or residential proximity to airports used by planes that still run on leaded fuel. Exposure to lead can even come from food, candy, and other consumer products. The neurological effects of lead exposure can be devastating. In children, it is associated with academic and behavioral struggles in school, as lead makes it more difficult to concentrate in class and increases the likelihood of diagnosis with learning disabilities. These deficits become risk factors for future negative outcomes—including delinquency, criminal behavior, substance use, and teen pregnancy—as exposed children enter adolescence and young adulthood. Some of these negative effects may be offset by high-quality programs provided in early and middle childhood, but the preferred solution by far is to prevent initial exposure to lead.

While children’s blood lead levels declined dramatically following federal efforts from the 1970s onward, many children continue to be exposed to lead, particularly those from low-income and minority populations. For example, in cities with disproportionately high numbers of low-income (predominantly black or Hispanic) populations—including New Orleans, LA; Baltimore, MD; Cleveland, OH; and East Chicago, IN—many residents live in poorly maintained housing where lead exposure is a big threat. American Indian communities are also disproportionally affected by lead, and face an increased risk of lead exposure from former mining sites on tribal lands and reservation proximity to Superfund sites—land contaminated by hazardous waste that has been identified by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for clean-up.

A new report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Health Impact Project at the Pew Charitable Trusts—inspired by Flint and other impacted communities—represents a comprehensive, up-to-date analysis of the sources of lead exposure for children and how that exposure can be prevented. Child Trends and its partners, the Urban Institute and Altarum Institute, were part of the report’s quantitative analysis team, assessing the effects, costs, and benefits of various interventions to prevent lead exposure and support children who have been exposed.

The report provides federal, state, and local policymakers with evidence-based recommendations for dealing with lead hazards to prevent exposure among children. Recommendations with the potential to impact the most children include the following:

  • Reduce lead in drinking water in homes built before 1986 and in other places that children frequent, including child care settings and schools.
  • Remove lead paint hazards from housing built before 1960, especially in low-income housing, and in other places where children spend time.
  • Increase enforcement of the EPA’s renovation, repair, and painting rule to ensure that the appropriate safety measures are taken when work is done in a house with lead paint.

The report also recommends that policymakers respond on behalf of children who have already been exposed to lead:

  • Improve blood lead testing among children at high risk of exposure, and find and remediate the sources of their exposure.
  • Ensure access to developmental and neuropsychological assessments and appropriate high-quality programs for children with elevated blood lead levels.

Addressing these various lead hazards today can lead to millions (if not billions) of dollars in benefits via healthier, more successful future generations of children with higher levels of educational attainment and reduced health risks, who are less reliant on health and social assistance programs. And because lead disproportionately affects low-income and/or minority communities, policy- and decision-makers in these communities should be particularly mindful of the implications of these recommendations.

All children deserve a chance to live up to their full potential, but exposure to lead can rob children of that opportunity. And unlike many of our country’s toughest public health issues, we know how to solve the lead problem. In fact, we have already successfully eliminated some of the sources of lead. Now it’s time to finish the job, and ensure that no child is put at risk of lead exposure again.