By Nwanne Agada, Children’s Environmental Health Program Coordinator
Just three weeks ago, I was chatting with my Uber driver who mentioned that a recent visit to the pediatrician revealed that her 2-year-old niece had an elevated level of lead in her blood. I remember hearing the confusion and sadness in her voice because she didn’t understand how it happened or how it would affect her niece as she gets older. There was so much she didn’t know about lead poisoning and she felt helpless. Unfortunately, this is not the only anecdote I’ve heard in the recent weeks about a child with too much lead in their body.
Sadly, across our nation and our state, childhood lead exposure and its painful consequences remain a serious problem. The Flint water crisis was just the beginning and gave us an unfortunate education on the hazards of lead to children. Lead attacks the development of the brain and central nervous system, and because children absorb 4-5 times as much ingested lead as adults from a given source, children are particularly vulnerable. The health effects of lead poisoning in children include slowed growth, lower IQ, anti-social behavior, decreased bone and muscle growth, impulse control behavior, and can follow them through adulthood. At high levels of exposures, lead poisoning can lead to seizures, coma, or even death.
Fortunately, the North Carolina Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program (NC CLPPP) and the CDC have done a great job bringing lead levels down in children’s bodies. The average rate of children with elevated blood lead levels (≥10 ug/dl) now averages 0.2% per year (CDC); however, childhood lead poisoning is still a problem in North Carolina, particularly in low-income areas with older housing and lead water pipes. The risk of lead poisoning falls disproportionately on minority children, with black children three times more likely than white children to have elevated blood-lead levels. For example, Halifax and Bertie County both have a high African American population (62.5% and 53.2%, respectively) and 34% of children under the age of 6 fall below the poverty line. Both counties still have confirmed elevated blood lead levels in children two to three times higher than the state average.
The good news is that through public policy, North Carolina can grow closer to its goal of reducing children’s exposure to lead poisoning. Three policies and practices that would have a profound impact are:
1) Requiring lead-safe certification of rental housing and all child-occupied facilities (such as child-care centers) before they can be sold or occupied by new tenants. This policy can help to end the cycle of using young children as lead detectors.
2) Passing legislation to enforce testing of drinking water in daycares and schools to help reduce children’s exposure to lead through water.
3) Working with groups of pediatricians in areas of the state with high lead hazards to adopt new lead screening protocols for infants and toddlers to help ensure that all children are tested and that surveillance is maintained on blood lead levels in children all across the state.
Last week was National Lead Poisoning Prevention Week, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) put together a “National Lead Poisoning Prevention Week Toolkit” and a “Campaign Resource Package” that can be used by anyone to help raise awareness on childhood lead poisoning. It contains information on developing an action plan, organizing awareness activities, social media outreach, key messages, and online resources.
Spread the word to family and friends and show them that we can all have a part in making the future better for the children of North Carolina!