Less Children Tested For Lead Poisoning During Pandemic, CDC Warns

Federal disease experts indicate nearly half a million children in the United States missed important blood testing for lead levels during the first half of 2020, most likely due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which may have long-term health consequences as a result of failure to diagnose lead poisoning.

Childhood exposure to lead found in older paint or certain consumer products can lead to serious developmental disorders, seizures, kidney damage, organ failure and other health concerns. While testing is a critical step in detecting the exposure early and avoiding long-term damage, testing has lagged for hundreds of thousands of children since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the findings of a report published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) last week.

In the latest issue of the agency’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, CDC researchers analyzed data reported by 34 state and local health departments on blood lead level testing among children younger than 6 years old. According to that data, 480,000 fewer children had their blood lead levels tested between January 2020 to May 2020, compared to tested during the same time period in 2019.

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During the height of the pandemic in 2020, 34% fewer children had their blood tested for lead exposure, the findings indicate. Researchers estimate this could result in a failure to diagnose 9,600 children with elevated blood lead levels.

The data indicates the decline in testing occurred across all 34 reporting state and local health departments following the COVID-19 national emergency declaration in March. Health departments also reported difficulty conducting medical follow up and environmental testing because of staffing shortage and constraints on home visits linked to the pandemic.

Lead exposure during childhood can affect a child’s ability to learn and develop. While routine testing can detect elevated blood lead levels in children, health experts emphasize there is no safe blood level of lead exposure, and more than half a million children have blood levels considered unsafe.

In the United States, the most common exposures to lead are from lead-based paint that was used in pre-1978 housing, lead contaminated soil or lead-containing pollutants from industrial sources, and water from old lead pipes and fixtures. Lead-tainted water was the major health concern in Flint, Michigan, in 2016, leading to hundreds of illnesses and other side effects.

Exposure to even low levels of lead may play a larger role in heart disease and deaths in the United States. Ensuring children are tested for lead exposure and treated is key to preventing illness, CDC experts warn.

The CDC researchers called on public health agencies to focus on actions ensuring children who missed their scheduled blood lead screenings or follow ups are tested as soon as possible. Children who are exposed to lead, often continue to be exposed from the same sources. Screening can help find the source and remove it from a child’s life.

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