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CDC Lowers Lead-Poisoning Threshold

John Ryan

KUOW has been investigating lead pollution in Washington state. Lead has been known for centuries to be a powerful poison. Even small concentrations can lower children's IQs and cause permanent brain damage.

Now the federal government says children's brains are even more sensitive to lead than previously thought. KUOW's John Ryan reports.


The new standard from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention nearly doubles the number of children considered to have lead poisoning. Now, one out of 40 American kids has what's deemed a dangerous level of lead in their blood.

Medical doctor and lead expert Bruce Lanphear says the CDC announcement is long overdue.

Lanphear: "It is quite delayed. But it is an important step."

Lanphear was nominated to be on the CDC's expert panel on lead poisoning back in the Clinton administration. His nomination was then rejected by the Bush administration. Lanphear now researches poison prevention at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada.

Lanphear: "I expected that this would happen about five years ago. A number of studies now over the past decade have shown that there is no safe level of lead, that at the lowest measurable levels, we still see decrements in children's learning abilities."

The lowered threshold for lead poisoning means public health agencies have a bigger job to screen children for lead and to prevent exposure to lead in the first place.

Jenks: "We agree that we should be addressing blood lead levels at lower levels than we have been."

Lauren Jenks is an epidemiologist with the Washington Department of Health. She specializes in lead–poisoning prevention.

Jenks: "No level of lead in our children's blood is safe. The lower we can get blood lead levels, the better for our kids and for our future."

For most of the 20th century, lead was a common ingredient in gasoline and paint. The biggest source of lead in America's air today is the leaded fuel still used by small airplanes. EPA data show Seattle's Boeing Field to be the state's largest source of airborne lead emissions.

But children are most likely to be exposed to lead released by old paint in old buildings. Here's Lauren Jenks:

Jenks: "Especially when you've got little ones crawling on the floor, their hands get dusty, and they put their hands right in their mouths. So it's not like a stereotypical image of kids eating paint chips. But it's kids being exposed by the dust in their home."

Only about 8 percent of children in Washington get screened for lead poisoning. That's one of the lowest rates in the country.

Federal funding for preventing lead poisoning was cut by more than 90 percent this year.

I'm John Ryan, KUOW News.

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