Childhood lead poisoning is a major, preventable environmental health problem in the United States. Blood lead levels (BLLs) as low as 10 mcg/dL are associated with harmful effects on children’s ability to learn. Very high BLLs (70 mcg/dL) can cause devastating health consequences, including seizures, coma, and death. It is currently estimated that some 890,000 U.S. children have BLLs >=10 mcg/dL (CDC, 1997).
In 1991, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services called for elimination of childhood lead poisoning and retains its commitment to see this effort through. Blood lead screening is an important element of a comprehensive program to eliminate childhood lead poisoning. The goal of such screening is to identify children who need individual interventions to reduce their BLLs. A 1994 national survey showed that only about one-fourth of young children had been screened and only about one-third of poor children, who are at higher risk of lead exposure than other children, had been screened.
The key to preventing lead poisoning is knowledge; knowing what to do and what not to do. For example, deteriorating lead paint in a child’s home is hazardous, but removing it improperly can turn the potential for low-level poisoning into the reality of acute lead poisoning.
Children are at special risk because their bodies process lead differently than adults. Children absorb up to 50 percent of the lead they ingest; adults retain only 10 percent. This high retention occurs during the early formative years when the central nervous system, including the brain, is developing. Lead interferes with that development. By the time physical symptoms are evident; headaches, nausea and weakness; significant brain damage has already occurred.
It doesn’t take much lead to poison a child. An amount equal to one granule of sugar each day over a period of time will raise a child’s blood lead level to 35 mcg/dL, high enough to trigger intervention and treatment.