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CDC: Dangerous Blood Lead Levels Down

But an Estimated 310,000 Young Kids Are Still at Risk, Agency Says

WebMD Health News

May 26, 2005 -- Fewer Americans have dangerously high levels of lead in their blood, says the CDC.

The CDC estimates that 0.7% of the U.S. population had elevated blood levels from 1999-2002. That's down from 2.2% in 1991-1994, says the CDC.

However, nearly 310,000 children younger than 6 remained at risk for harmful lead levels, and the problem continued to be most common among black children. The numbers, based on a national health survey, appear in the CDC's May 27th Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

High blood lead levels are more than 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood (mcg/dL).

Lead's Dangers

"Exposure to lead is an important public health problem, particularly for young children," says the CDC's report. Kids younger than 6 are particularly vulnerable because their growing bodies absorb lead more easily than adults' bodies.

"Lead poisoning can affect nearly every system in the body," says the web site for the CDC's Lead Poisoning Prevention Program. "Because lead poisoning often occurs with no obvious symptoms, it frequently goes unrecognized. Lead poisoning can cause learning disabilities, behavioral problems, and, at very high levels, seizures, coma, and even death."

Fewer Black Children Affected

Blood lead levels dropped in all generations and racial/ethnic groups from 1999-2002, says the CDC.

The number of people with high blood lead levels is 68% lower than in 1991-1994. Black children had the biggest decrease -- a 72% drop. However, they still had the country's biggest percentage (3%), even though their rates have been falling since 1998.

In comparison, the latest percentage was half as low for white children of the same age (1.3%) and 2% for Mexican-American children. Data were not available for other racial and ethnic groups.

Lead Sources

Children's most common sources of lead exposure are lead-based paint and dust from lead-based paint, says the CDC.

Lead-based paints have been banned in the U.S. since 1978. However, it lingers on the walls of some old buildings. The number of homes with lead-based paint fell from 64 million in 1990 to 38 million in 2000, but there's still a long way to go.

An estimated 24 million housing units still contain substantial lead paint hazards, many of these occupied by low-income families with young children, says the CDC's report.

CDC's Advice

The CDC recommends these actions for lead concerns:

  • Ask a doctor to test your child's blood lead level.
  • Talk to your state or local health department about testing paint or dust from your pre-1978 home.
  • Reduce exposure to lead by cleaning floors with a damp mop, swabbing surfaces with a damp wipe, and frequently washing a child's hands, toys, and pacifiers.
  • Use only cold water from the tap for drinking, cooking, and making baby formula. Hot tap water is more likely to contain higher levels of lead.
  • Avoid using home remedies and cosmetics containing lead.
  • When remodeling buildings built before 1978 or working with lead-based products, take steps to reduce your lead exposure. For instance, shower and change clothes when you're done with a task involving lead exposure.

Getting enough calcium and vitamin C may also protect against lead toxicity.

More Tests Needed for Affected Kids

Children who have high blood lead levels need follow-up testing, but a recent report in The Journal of the American Medical Association showed that many children don't get rescreened.

That study only included children in Michigan, but the lesson applies to all kids: High lead levels need continued medical attention.

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