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Back To Vidyya No Safe Threshold For Lead Exposure In Children

Economic Disparities A Major Factor In Lead Poisoning

A study conducted at Children's Hospital Medical Center in Cincinnati indicates that, despite previous thinking, there is no safe threshold for lead exposure in children.

The study found that lead at very low levels in blood was associated with adverse effects on reading and math scores. Announced at an Environmental Media Services (EMS) press breakfast today, the study by Dr. Bruce Lanphear of Children's Hospital Medical Center will be published later this month in the peer-reviewed journal Public Health Reports. Lanphear said his findings show that lead-associated cognitive deficits occur at blood lead levels lower than previously thought.

"Even though Centers for Disease Control found that the average blood lead levels in American children have consistently declined since the late 1970s -- which is very good news -- childhood lead exposure is still a major public health crisis in the US," Dr. Lanphear said. "There is no magic number for lead poisoning; the science shows that any lead exposure hurts fetuses and young children. What we must do is reduce children's exposure to lead at every opportunity, especially for those children at greatest risk."

Joining Lanphear at the press conference to release the report, entitled "Cognitive Deficits Associated with Blood Lead Concentrations Below 10 mg/dL," was Dr. Bailus Walker, professor of environmental and occupational medicine at Howard University College of Medicine and chairman of the Alliance to End Childhood Lead Poisoning.

"The fact that the population's average blood lead level is declining certainly comes as welcome news, but this statistic gives little comfort to the children still being poisoned," Walker said. "Children of color and children from low-income families are at a higher risk for lead poisoning. More than one-third of preschool children in some urban neighborhoods today have lead poisoning. This is shameful -- every child deserves a lead-safe home."

Mohammad Akhter, MD, MPH, executive director of the American Public Health Association said that efforts to protect children from the dangerous effects of lead should focus on primary prevention -- prevention that reduces the risks associated with lead at the principle source, e.g., private housing. In addition, programs that conduct blood lead screening of children should be expanded. "President Bush has said we will leave no child behind, and that is good," said Akhter. "But the 2001 budget for lead poisoning prevention totals only $135 million for the entire country -- and this at a time when we are thinking of giving tax cuts."

Don Ryan, executive director of the Alliance to End Childhood Lead Poisoning, said the public health community should stop relying on children as "lead detectors," determining exposure only after the fact. "Truly protecting US children from lead poisoning requires us to start testing houses, as well as children, in order to prevent and control lead hazards before permanent damage occurs," said Ryan.

Ryan noted that progress made on childhood lead poisoning over the past two decades is a direct result of efforts to reduce exposure to environmental lead hazards, which he calls bottom-line proof that environmental controls directly benefit human health. "First and foremost, that means cleaning up lead paint hazards that are poisoning low-income children in older, high risk housing."

The Alliance suggested that every parent watch out for lead hazards at home, particularly lead dust from peeling paint or paint disturbed by a home renovation project. Two speakers noted that there is no cure for lead poisoning. The only "prescription" is prevention -- protecting children from lead hazards in their homes.

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Editor: Susan K. Boyer, RN
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