Study Finds Lead Poisoning In Kids Is Widespread

by Abby Norman

In the wake of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, important conversations about the dangers of lead — particularly for children — have been at the forefront of public consciousness. While the people of Flint still don't have clean water, the plumbing and political infrastructure to blame for the crisis is set to be remedied by 2020. Elsewhere in the U.S., however, a new study from the Public Health Institute’s California Environmental Health Tracking program revealed lead poisoning in kids might be worse than we thought. Here's what that means for families, and how parents can help force governments to be accountable for potential poisoning.

After what happened in Flint, Michigan, the focus on lead has primarily been on its presence in a community's water supply. In fact, lead can actually be present in a number of places and things that can pose a risk to children. According to the CDC, children are at a much higher risk for lead poisoning if they’re exposed — mostly because they’re smaller than adults and therefore don’t need much of it in their systems before it can cause trouble. For this reason, the CDC's stance is that there is no “safe level” of lead for kids to have in their bloodstream. Unless a family knows that their water supply or home is contaminated with lead, it can be hard to know if kids are at risk. To make matters worse, the symptoms of lead poisoning can be vague and may look like other conditions or illnesses, especially those that mimic neurological conditions like ADHD.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Armed with their estimates, the Public Health Institute’s California Environmental Health Tracking program's study — which was published in the journal Pediatrics this week — revealed some disturbing figures. Original estimates for the decade between 1999 and 2010, indicated around 1.2 million children would have elevated levels of lead in their blood. When researchers looked at the actual reported data from that same time period, only 606,709 cases were reported by 38 states. 12 states didn’t report at all.

The reason is that the requirements for screening, testing, and reporting lead levels in children varies from state to state. States that aren’t required at all aren’t likely to undertake the costly procedure, especially if they lack the government funding and resources to do it. The states who do regularly screen and report are located in areas of the country that have well-known problems with lead: mostly the Northeast and Midwest. Because lead is a known problem there, pediatricians are more likely to test for it. In other parts of the country, doctors may not see lead as a typical problem in their region, and therefore wouldn’t test for it as regularly.

Still, even in the 38 states who did report, 23 reported a number of cases that were less than half what the Public Health Institute’s California Environmental Health Tracking program expected in that state, and 11 reported just 20 percent of the number of cases predicted. Of the 615,704 children included in the program’s estimate, they found that over half of them had never had their lead levels tested at all.

Dr. Eric Roberts, the main author of the study and a scientist at the California Environmental Health Tracking Program at the Public Health Institute, told CNN that despite what any individual state may or may not mandate:

It's actually the law that all kids who qualify for Medicaid get tested for lead. So that's been an easy way for people to notice that the numbers don't add up and the majority of kids who qualify for Medicaid actually don't get tested.

In March, WYNC created a map of the lead levels in New York City’s public schools. The EPA considers 15 parts per billion to be “action level”; some schools in the city tested higher than 11,000 parts per billion.

At least in New York, anyone in the city can request a lead testing kit for free, which they can use to gather a sample from their home tap and then send back to the government for analysis. Other states may offer similar testing, but even if a family discovers that their home or neighborhood has a lead problem, what’s to be done about it?

In the case of a contaminated water supply, if the lead is leeching in through pipes in the house, that’s far easier to fix than a city’s entire plumbing infrastructure — as the people of Flint have found out. There are “best practices” for using lead contaminated water, and many families rely on bottled water for cooking and drinking (bathing in lead-contaminated water is safe because lead doesn’t poison through skin, only ingestion. That being said, kids do tend to drink bath water, so it’s still likely a concern for parents.)

What parents can do is find out what the testing and reporting requirements are in their state, take action to test for lead in their homes, neighborhoods, and schools, and have conversations with their child’s pediatrician about any concerning symptoms that could be due to lead poisoning. Lead poisoning is preventable. What happened in Flint should have never happened, and it should never happen again.

But until there is federal regulation for lead testing and reporting in all 50 states, it will be up to parents and communities to continue to educate — and advocate. Whether that means contacting state representatives to urge them to introduce or support mandates for federal lead regulation and testing, or helping connect families in their communities to the resources needed to test for lead at home. Parents can start by going to the CDC's website to find out what kind of program their state has. If lead testing kits aren't available for free through municipalities, like they are in NYC, the EPA supports several kits that can be purchased online.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story indicated that the study was completed by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, which was incorrect. The study was completed by the Public Health Institute’s California Environmental Health Tracking program. The CDC did not support, research, or release the study. Romper apologizes for the error.