More Than Half of U.S. Children Have Detectable Levels of Lead In Their Blood: Study

According to the findings of a new study, more than half of children under the age of 6 in the United States have detectable levels of lead in their blood, which may be signs that they are at risk of experiencing neurodevelopment and health problems.

Researchers with Boston Children’s Hospital and Quest Diagnostics report that just over 50% of U.S. children in the U.S. appear to have detectable blood lead levels, and nearly two percent of all children have levels that may qualify as lead poisoning. The odds were higher for children living in housing built before the 1950s, which still may have traces of lead paint and pipes, according to findings published online on September 27 in JAMA Pediatrics.

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 have consistently emphasized there is no safe blood level of lead exposure, and more than half a million children have blood levels considered unsafe.

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Children diagnosed with lead poisoning after exposure to peeling or chipping lead paint in a rental home may be entitled to financial compensation and benefits.

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In this latest study, researchers looked at blood lead tests performed at a large clinical laboratory from October 1, 2018 to February 29, 2020. The results from more than 1 million children under the age of 6, from all 50 states, were included in the study. The researchers also looked at a number of demographics that may be contributing factors to lead exposure, including whether they lived in pre-1950s housing, sex, age, type of health insurance, poverty, race, ethnicity and geographical regions.

According to the findings, across the board, 50.5% of children tested had detectable blood lead levels (BLLs), and 1.9% had BLLs of 5.0 micrograms per decaliter (μg/dL), which is considered a level of concern.

A number of factors appeared to contribute to children’s risk of having detectable levels of lead in their blood. Living in pre-1950s housing and being poor were significant contributing factors, according to the findings. In addition, children living in zip codes with predominantly Black or non-Latinx populations had higher odds of having detectable BLLs. However, they had lower odds for having elevated levels about 5.0 μg/dL.

“This study suggests that, despite progress in reducing pediatric lead exposure, substantial individual- and community-level disparities persist,” the researchers concluded.

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, health experts warn.

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