Childhood Lead Poisoning: A Persistent Problem, Solutions Needed

Tom Irwin

 Alex via photopin (license)

We must do a better job in New Hampshire and across New England of protecting our children from the devastating impacts of childhood lead poisoning.
Photo: Alex via photopin (license)

For years, we’ve all known 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 we’ve seen it removed from 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 lead paint either 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 key 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, and that even low blood lead levels – levels much lower than 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 – on the basis of 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, meaning that all children in those cities and towns should be tested for lead (as I’ll discuss in a future blog, far from 100 percent of children in those communities are actually 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 poisoned children and their families, the larger economic impacts are significant as well. In a July 2014 report, the NH Division of Public Health Services conservatively estimated that the 2013 cohort of New Hampshire 5-year-olds will 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 for lead poisoning, 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.

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