The number of young children with lead poisoning may be about to more than double

It is possible that the number of children suffering from lead poisoning in their young years could be more than twice as high.
Zoomen this image to toggle caption Carlos Osorio/AP Carlos Osorio/AP

NEW YORK - The U.S. Health officials have revised their definition of lead poisoning for young children. This move is expected to increase the number of children with dangerous levels of the toxic metal.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Thursday that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will increase the number of children aged 1-5 who are considered to have high levels of blood lead. This means that the number of children with high blood lead levels will rise from approximately 200,000 to around 500,000.

Experts believe the time was right for this change. The definition was last updated by the CDC nine years ago. They promised to update it every four years. Patrick Breysse who is the head of the CDC's National Center for Environmental Health, stated that work on a revision was hampered by the Trump administration.

Lead can be introduced to children through old paint and contaminated dust. In some cities, water pipes that carry lead are used to supply drinking water. The body can accumulate the metal and it can cause seizures and damage to organs.

It can also have dangerous effects at lower levels, especially for young children. Children can absorb up to four to five times the amount of lead that adults do from the same source. This can cause brain damage and behavioral problems in children.

Dr. Marissa Hauptman (a Boston Children's Hospital pediatrician who treats children exposed to lead), said that there is no safe level of lead.

Public health officials should investigate the cause of elevated levels of lead in children and then take action to remove it. Hauptman stated that she hoped that the standard change would be accompanied by additional funding, but CDC officials confirmed that there is now new funding.

A measurement of micrograms per deciliter blood is used to assess lead poisoning. The average blood lead level for children aged 1-5 in the United States was 15 micrograms per decliter in the late 1970s. The latest reported measure was 0.83 micrograms. It covered the years 2011 to 2016.

The drop in U.S. children's lead consumption was due to the elimination of lead paints and gasoline, as well as other preventative and cleanup efforts. Scientists have now shown that even tiny amounts of lead can impact intellectual development.

The standard for children was 10 micrograms per deciliter in 1991. It was reduced to five micrograms in 2012. Thursday's new standard is 3.5 micrograms.

Since years, the change has been in process. In the final days of Obama's administration, health officials decided that the standard needed to be lower. Breysse stated that the Trump administration failed to get the required approvals from entities such as the White House Office of Management and Budget.

He said, "This administration is more supportive."

David Rosner, a Columbia University public-health historian, stated that the CDC was "vulnerable" to political winds.

Rosner, who co-authored books on lead poisoning and other forms pollution, said that "the fact they are doing this now is an indicator they feel a bit freed up."

Although lead exposure can occur anywhere, research has shown that it is more prevalent in areas with older housing in the Northeast and Midwest.

Hauptman stated that the recall of a test kit has made it difficult to make the standard change.

Magellan Diagnostics Inc. had earlier this year recalled certain blood lead testing kits due to falsely low levels of blood lead. The CDC notified doctors this month that the recall was extended to all kits distributed within the past year.

Hauptman stated, "When you're talking about a level 3.5, that precision matters."

Officials from the health sector have stated that there are still other methods of testing blood for lead. Some health officials also pointed out that the standard change is made at a time when they are facing other challenges.

Baltimore City Health Department's lead screening programs were stopped last year because staff and resources were being shifted to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. A spokesperson for the department stated in an email that they plan to resume lead testing in January.