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EPA Lax Policies On Child Lead Exposure

by Jim Feuer

Call for elimination of residential lead
CINCINNATI -- Federal policies regarding residential lead poisoning favor the lead industry or economic concerns at the expense of children's health, according to an article by a physician from Children's Hospital Medical Center of Cincinnati in the September 11 edition of the journal Science.

These federal standards regarding prevention of lead in the home ignore existing scientific evidence and are unlikely to protect inner-city children from lead poisoning, according to pediatrician and topic expert Bruce P. Lanphear.

"The results of numerous studies argue that efforts to prevent lead poisoning should emphasize primary prevention -- the elimination of residential lead hazards before children are unduly exposed," says Dr. Lanphear. "Yet, our efforts continue to focus on secondary prevention -- screening children for elevated blood lead levels and controlling lead hazards after a child has been unduly exposed. It's time to establish a scientifically based strategy to eliminate lead toxicity by controlling residential lead hazards."

Standards proposed by the EPA are inconsistent
In an article titled The Paradox of Lead Poisoning Prevention, Dr. Lanphear argues that there are three paradoxes in proposed EPA standards. The first is that the effects of lead exposure are largely irreversible, "yet we wait until children are exposed before taking action," says Dr. Lanphear. Second, proposed EPA standards set floor dust at too high a level, thereby not protecting children, according to Lanphear. Third, even though we rely on secondary prevention, there is limited data showing it to be either safe or beneficial for the vast majority of children with elevated blood lead levels, he says.

Lanphear says it is critical to expand efforts to identify and eliminate residential lead hazards before children are exposed to them. Prevention strategies should contain several components. First, blood lead levels and floor dust lead levels must be set appropriately. The standards proposed by the EPA are inconsistent with the EPA's own definition of levels that pose a threat, according to Dr. Lanphear. Second, Dr. Lanphear says it is critical to target housing containing lead hazards, particularly those causing lead poisoning.

"National, state and community surveys of housing need to be conducted to identify and prioritize the elimination of lead hazards prior to occupancy by children," says Dr. Lanphear. "Residential screening could be done on a routine basis, depending on the age and condition of the house, or terminated if the housing is certified to be free of lead hazards."

Third, once residential hazards are identified, it is critical that safe and effective methods to eliminate lead hazards exist. Similarly, it is necessary to develop a plan for the gradual elimination of lead hazards during renovation or demolition of older housing.

Lead toxicity, defined as a blood lead level of 10 micrograms per deciliter or higher, is estimated to affect one of every 20 children in the United States. Studies have demonstrated serious harmful and irreversible effects of low-level lead exposure on brain function, such as lowered intelligence and diminished school performance, especially from exposures that occur early in life.

During the last two decades, average blood lead levels in children in the United States have fallen more than 90 percent, due largely to the elimination of lead from gasoline and dietary sources. It's estimated that nearly 900,000 preschool children in the United States have a blood lead of 10 micrograms per deciliter or higher. In some cities, especially in the northeastern United States, more than one-third of preschool children have blood lead levels exceeding this benchmark.

Dr. Lanphear is a leading authority and researcher on lead, particularly in the area of preventing childhood lead exposure and poisoning. Among other activities on a state and national level, he chaired a U.S. department of housing and urban development committee focusing on the contribution of lead-contaminated house dust and soil to blood lead levels in children.

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Albion Monitor November 16, 1998 (

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