Federal regulators have tightened lead exposure rules for federally assisted housing, lowering the minimum blood lead level in children that will spark interventions to protect them from lead poisoning.
Last month, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced that it was lowering what it considers elevated blood lead levels in children under the age of six, from 20 micrograms per deciliter to 5 micrograms per deciliter.
The final rule, announced in this week’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), is meant to align the agency’s lead exposure standards to match lead standards set by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
If a child in a HUD-assisted household is tested and found to have elevated levels of lead in their blood, it triggers intervention by the agency, which then evaluates the situation in the home and takes measures to reduce lead exposure. According to the final rule posted last month in the Federal Register, HUD will also conduct more comprehensive testing and evaluation procedures.
The standards apply to all federally-owned or assisted housing built before 1978. However, the new HUD standards come as the CDC considers reducing lead levels of concern yet again, from 5 micrograms per deciliter to 3.5 micrograms per deciliter.
The agency reviews its standards for elevated lead levels in children every four years. However, it only applies to children under the age of 6, as there is no lead threshold for older children and adults.
In 2012, the CDC dropped the “level of concern” for blood lead levels in children under the age of 6 from 10 micrograms per deciliter to 5. The move doubled the amount of children in the U.S. considered at risk for adverse health effects at the time.
Lead poisoning for children poses a serious health risk, potentially causing nervous system injury, brain damage, seizures or convulsions, growth or mental retardation, coma and even death.
One of the more common causes of of lead poisoning is lead-based paint, which was banned in the United States in 1978 due to the risk of severe and permanent brain damage and developmental problems, particularly in children. However, a number of older homes still contain the toxic paint on the walls, and if it flakes or peals off, young children could ingest the paint chips or breathe dust that comes from the paint, resulting in lead poisoning. Many of those homes are owned by HUD or receive HUD assistance.
Recent years have also seen a focus on lead in drinking water, stemming from the recent and ongoing Flint water crisis, during which a change to the water system in the Michigan city resulted in high levels of lead in residents’ drinking water, causing thousands of children to suffer lead exposure and, potentially, lead poisoning.
The CDC estimates that 535,000 children ages 1-5, or about 2.6% of such children in the U.S., have levels of lead in their blood that place them at risk for adverse health effects. To come up with that number, the CDC analyzed data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey from the years 1999 to 2002, and 2007 through 2010.
That number is likely to increase significantly if the threshold is lowered.
The majority of those children are poor and live in older urban areas, mainly in the inner city. Most are minorities, meaning such exposures add to numerous problems already plaguing inner city black and Latino youths, such as poverty, high crime and poor schools.