By Tom Vitaglione
There was a time not long ago when most people thought lead poisoning was no longer a problem for American kids. Removing lead from gasoline and house paint has brought us very close to that reality. But the suffering of Flint’s children has made us painfully aware that the the hazards of lead exposure to children still linger dangerously close in many communities. Now is the time to turn this awareness into an initiative to eliminate lead as a childhood menace in North Carolina.
There is no safe level of exposure to lead. The human body has no use for it, and its presence introduces all sorts of risks. Children are at particular risk of harm because of both biological and behavioral factors. Rapid growth, development, and increased metabolism mean that more lead is absorbed per pound of body weight. Young children are exposed more often because they play on the floor where contaminated house dust settles, frequently putting hands in mouths. Furthermore, the children at greatest risk are those who come from low-income families, often children of color – those most likely to live in older homes and communities where lead paint and lead pipes persist.
Childhood lead exposures have significant health effects, chiefly irreversible toxicity to the developing brain and nervous system. Even the lowest levels of exposure harm IQ. Lead harms the ability to concentrate and focus in school, damages attention and impulse control, and increases aggression. At higher levels, it causes anemia, hypertension, renal impairment and toxicity to the immune system and reproductive organs. The long-term costs to society can be enormous, including the increased need for special education, juvenile justice, and adult corrections programs.
We now know that pregnant women are also at particular risk. Throughout our lives, lead can be stored in our bones because it is similar to calcium. During pregnancy, when calcium is most needed, lead may leach out of bones and pass through the placenta to the developing fetus. At high levels this exposure can compromise the pregnancy. Even at low levels, the newborn will enter the world with a dose of lead in its blood that has already done harm.
North Carolina’s Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program (NCCLPPP) spent many years working to eliminate this problem. The prohibition of lead in paint used in residential settings as well as the introduction of unleaded gasoline helped remove lead from our air, water and soil. And the NCCLPPP’s testing and surveillance efforts dramatically reduced the number of North Carolina children with high levels of blood lead.
Unfortunately, the NCCLPPP has experienced insidious reductions in federal and state funding in the past decade, and the program has fallen behind, leaving needs unmet. The program has not had the authority or the funds to meet the CDC’s updated guidelines for blood lead level follow up, investigation, and remediation. This means that hundreds of our children each year who have detectable and dangerous levels of lead in the bodies have not received the follow up and care they deserve – simply because our state program is out of date.
This needs serious and prompt attention. The good news is that the budget submitted by Governor Roy Cooper would provide funding to allow the program to catch up to the other states by adopting the federal guidelines. (In technical terms, this means lowering blood lead levels from 10 to 5 micrograms per deciliter for follow up and investigation, and from 20 to 10 micrograms per deciliter for required remediation.) In addition, surveillance would be officially extended to pregnant women – preventing exposures to developing fetuses and newborn babies, instead of waiting until after they get their dose of poison.
The budget will be under consideration by the Senate in April. We urge senators to support the proposal to strengthen our state’s response to the problem of lead exposure to our children. Strengthening the NCCLPPP is an important first step in eradicating this problem.