Lead Exposure a Persistent Problem in the U.S. – Will the CDC’s Latest Proposal Improve Public Safety?

Lead exposure is not an uncommon problem in the United States. Young children, especially, are vulnerable to the toxic metal, which at very high levels of exposure can be fatal.

However, it was recently revealed that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is toying with a significant change in lead standards – one that could just as easily have either positive or detrimental effects.

The CDC, which sets the lead standards for exposure to lead in the U.S., has decided it may lower the current lead threshold for lead blood levels. The threshold indicates a limit over which children need a public health response for exposure to lead.

The federal agency is considering this change based on a data from a recent National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. This data revealed that children with blood lead levels of around 3.5 micrograms per deciliter have higher exposure than 97.5 percent of others in a 1 to 5-years-old age bracket. Potential action – that is, lowering the threshold from 5 micrograms per deciliter to 3.5 – will be up for discussion with state officials on January 17.

“Lead has no biological function in the body, and so the less there is of it in the body the better,” said Bernard M Y Cheung, a University of Hong Kong professor who studies lead data. “The revision in the blood lead reference level is to push local governments to tighten the regulations on lead in the environment.”

Tightening the Threshold Sounds Reasonable – but Is It?

Lowering the lead threshold by 30 percent, as the CDC may propose to do, will help to identify more children under age 6 afflicted with lead.

However, this move may inadvertently cause problems of its own. For one thing, at such a low threshold, testing is inaccurate as labs struggle to identify the presence of lead in the 3 micrograms per deciliter range.

For another, this change is bound to come at a significant cost. The CDC designates funds for aiding state or local health departments in the case management of afflicted children. But identifying more children who are deemed as warranting public response may drain already-limited resources. The CDC’s budget for lead response in 2016 was a mere $17 Million, and many health departments are already understaffed.

“A lower reference level may actually do harm by masking reality – that significant levels of lead exposure are still a problem throughout the country,” said Amy Winslow, chief executive of Magellan Diagnostics, whose systems diagnose lead poisoning. In other words, children who need the most help – those with far higher blood lead levels than even the current threshold – might have difficulty in receiving the attention they need.

Relentless Exposure to Toxic Substances Continues

Although lead use was banned more than 45 years ago, the metal can still be found in several products and materials including peeling old paint, tainted water, and contaminated soil.

Disturbingly, lead exposure can contribute to serious and irreversible health problems in children such as delayed physical growth, cognitive impairment, and other developmental issues.

Since its ban, blood lead levels in children have decreased more than 90 percent. But the fact remains that many children in the U.S. – 500,000, the CDC estimates – currently live with blood levels far above the norm.

What’s more, lead isn’t the only toxic substance that threatens the health of the American public. Silica dust, coal dust, asbestos, and other harmful minerals, substances, and chemicals have also been — for decades — a real burden for the entire population.

Asbestos, for example, is a naturally-occurring material that wasn’t identified as dangerous until only a few decades ago. The mineral was used in abundance in construction and product manufacture from the Industrial Age up until the 1990s. But its dangers have affected hundreds of thousands of unknowing workers for decades. Around 3,200 Americans are diagnosed with mesothelioma – a lethal, asbestos-related cancer – every year.

Asbestos-related complications are among the top cases of occupational disease, rivaling other types of poisoning, skin disease, hearing loss, and respiratory conditions, for example. The CDC estimates that between 26,000 and 72,000 deaths occur in the U.S. every year due to occupational disease.

The Role of the EPA in a New (Trumpian) Era

Currently, toxic substances including lead and asbestos are documented and regulated by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). But controversy now surrounds President-elect Trump’s rumored picks for the agency’s management, and his claim to dismantle the agency altogether.

With the future of the EPA so uncertain, so is the state of the nation’s toxic substance control and whether the CDC will succeed in its own public health protection measures.

Sokolove Law Team

Contributing Authors

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Last modified: September 28, 2020