Childhood Lead Poisoning: A Persistent Problem, Solutions Needed

Tom Irwin | @TomIrwinNH

We’ve known for years that lead is a dangerous toxin that can result in serious health problems. As a result, we’ve seen lead removed from our gasoline and our paint. But unfortunately, the problem of lead poisoning – particularly in children – has not gone away. While lead-based paints were banned in 1978, much of our housing stock in New England – including in New Hampshire, where I live and work – is old enough to contain lead paint. And when that paint deteriorates or is disturbed, the health of our kids is put at risk.

CLF’s work to protect New England’s children from the devastating impacts of lead poisoning dates back decades, when we played a crucial role in policies and laws to prevent childhood lead poisoning in Massachusetts. We’re now addressing the problem in New Hampshire, where we’re working closely with a diverse group of stakeholders – public health officials, children’s advocates, property owners, and lead professionals, to name a few – to put an end to childhood lead poisoning.

In this blog – the first in a series – I briefly describe the nature and extent of childhood lead poisoning, with a focus on New Hampshire. In upcoming blog posts, I’ll drill down on some of the specific challenges we face, and needed solutions.

No safe level; long-term consequences

In 2012, the Centers for Disease Control concluded that there is no safe level of lead exposure for children. They also determined that even low blood lead levels – much lower than those traditionally considered “elevated” – can lead to IQ deficits, attention-related behaviors, and poor academic achievement. The harm caused by lead can be irreversible, effectively robbing kids of their full potential. Although thankfully rare, high lead exposures, especially among vulnerable populations, can have fatal consequences. Sadly, in the year 2000, New Hampshire experienced the nation’s most recent fatality caused by lead poisoning – the death of a two-year-old Sudanese girl in Manchester, in the year 2000.

A shared risk

Childhood lead poisoning disproportionately affects children in low-income families living in aging, substandard housing. Children with nutritional deficiencies, such as New Americans who have come from challenging circumstances abroad, are even more vulnerable. In New Hampshire, the Department of Health and Human Services has identified – based on housing age, poverty levels, and surveillance data – eight highest-risk communities: Berlin, Claremont, Franklin, Laconia, Manchester, Nashua, Newport, and Rochester.

But the problem extends far beyond these communities. Based on the prevalence of aging housing stock and other factors, 57 percent of all New Hampshire municipalities have been designated as high-risk “universal screening” communities. That means that all children in those cities and towns should be tested for lead (right now, far from 100 percent of children in those communities are tested). And, of course, even beyond New Hampshire’s universal screening communities, wherever pre-1978 buildings containing lead-based paint are present, the risk remains.

The high cost of childhood lead poisoning

In 2013 alone, more than 1,000 new cases of lead poisoning were documented in New Hampshire – a number that’s far too high, considering the cumulative impact of more than 1,000 new cases each year, and considering the long-term consequences that can result from lead exposure.

In addition to the potentially life-changing effects of lead poisoning for children and their families, the broader economic impacts are significant as well. In a July 2014 report, the New Hampshire Division of Public Health Services conservatively estimated that the 2013 cohort of New Hampshire 5-year-olds would experience a lifetime earnings loss of $240 million as a result of lead-related IQ loss. It also estimated annual costs associated with special education ($209,000), medical treatment ($178,000), and crime linked to exposure to lead ($8.9 million). As the report states: “Reducing lead exposure yields economic benefits by avoiding health care and special education costs and by preventing reductions in intelligence, academic achievement, future productivity, and violent crime behavior.”

There are solutions

As noted above, as a nation, we’ve already taken significant steps to reduce lead poisoning. But there’s more to be done, from increasing the number of kids screened to policies that prevent poisonings from happening in the first place (a strong recommendation of the Centers for Disease Control). We must do a better job in New Hampshire and elsewhere in the region to protect our children’s health and future. In my next blog, I’ll discuss the challenge of screening more children to ensure we better identify and protect kids who have been exposed to lead.

This blog is the first in a series about childhood lead poisoning. Read the entire series here.

Focus Areas

People & Communities

Places

New Hampshire

Campaigns

Lead Poisoning

About the CLF Blog

The views and opinions expressed on this blog do not necessarily represent the opinions or positions of Conservation Law Foundation, our boards, or our supporters.