There is no safe blood lead level in children.
In following the inexplicable regulatory missteps in the Flint public water supply debacle, I could not help but think of the progress that has been made in removing lead from the environment and out of our children’s blood. In spending my professional career addressing environmental issues and problems from a state, federal and private practice perspective, I often have wondered what difference does it make. In the case of lead, we can actually measure our progress and success.
As a teenager, I filled my ‘54 Ford with regular leaded gasoline. Lead was not only in gasoline, it was everywhere. Recognizing the significant and often irreversible health effects of lead, regulatory programs were initiated at the federal, state, and local levels to “get the lead out.” The implementation of these programs reduced or eliminated lead from gasoline, foods and food packaging, house paint, water pipes, plumbing fixtures, and solder used in plumbing and drink cans.
Did these programs work? In 1978, approximately 13.5 million children aged 1-5 had blood lead levels (BLLs) greater than or equal to 10 micrograms per deciliter (ug/dL) of blood, which was until recently the level of concern recommended by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). The recommended level is now 5 ug/dL. Also, back in the 70s, the average BLL was approximately 15 ug/dL. Black children and children living in low-income families were at greater risk.
We have come a long way from the 70s. The average BLL in children dropped to 1.4 ug/dL by 2008. Below is a table graphically demonstrating this dramatic decrease in BLLs. The table is based on data from National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, United States, 1971 – 2008, taken from a CDC report, Lead in Drinking Water and Human Blood Lead Levels in the United States, August 10, 2012.
As we beat ourselves up over the mistakes in Flint, we should take a moment to reflect on and be re-energized by the demonstrable success of these regulatory programs. What we have done has made a difference! Flint reminds us that more must still be done.
Timeline of lead poisoning prevention policies and blood lead levels in children aged 1–5 years, by year — National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, United States, 1971–2008