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Children's Health

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'Safe' Lead Level Too High, Expert Says

Advocate Recommends Cutting Government Standard for Safe Lead Level in Half
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Oct. 18, 2007 -- Children exposed to lead levels deemed safe by U.S. government standards may still be at risk, a researcher told a Senate committee Thursday.

Bruce P. Lanphear, MD, who directs the Cincinnati Children's Environmental Health Center, told lawmakers that lead standards should be cut in half to guarantee children’s safety.

The testimony comes in the wake of several high-profile toy and product recalls from U.S. markets because of lead. They include millions of toys made in China for the Mattel company and several other products.

Lead poisoning interferes with neural development in children and developing fetuses. High levels of lead in children can cause learning and behavior problems.

The CDC considers lead levels in the blood above 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood to be a concern in children. But some studies have shown harmful effects in children with lead levels measured at or near the current standard.

"Because there is no known safe level of lead exposure, exposure to lead below these existing standards should not be considered 'safe,'" Lanphear said.

"Thus, the CDC's level of concern should be lowered to a blood lead level less than 5 micrograms per deciliter because society cannot respond to a threat until it first acknowledges it," he said.

The majority of lead exposure in children comes from lead paint and paint dust, mostly in older housing. That puts urban and mostly poor children at the highest risk.

But there have also been cases of severe lead poisoning in children who swallow parts of lead toys, jewelry, or other products.

"I'm outraged that lead is still in wide use, especially in products for children," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who chairs the Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee.

Elevated lead levels can also lead to hypertension, cognitive deficits, nerve problems, and other problems in adults.

Several Republicans pointed out that U.S. children's average lead exposure has dropped close to 90% since the 1970s. Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., the committee's ranking member, said Congress should focus its efforts on old buildings and owners who refuse to clean them up, instead of lower national lead standards.

"These repeat-offender properties ought to be our greatest target," he said.

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