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The Silent Epidemic We Didn't Know We Needed to Worry About

Photograph by Twenty20

It’s hard to believe that in this day and age, lead poisoning is still a menace to millions of children in the United States of America. But make no mistake about it, lead poisoning is a serious issue in this country.

This isn’t the kind of "first-world problem" that we can make light of because although the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention establish the threshold for elevated lead at 5 micrograms per deciliter of blood, they also acknowledge that there is no level of lead that is deemed safe in a child’s body.

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An ongoing investigation by Reuters has so far found more than 3,300 U.S. neighborhoods nationwide where kids are testing positive for lead poisoning at twice the rate experienced in Flint, Michigan, at the peak of that city’s water contamination crisis—and let's not forget that was declared a state of emergency.

What’s the big deal when it comes to lead poisoning and children? Once lead enters the body through the nose or mouth via dust particles, water, soil or any other source, it affects just about every organ and system in the body. In particular, the nervous system.

“It can cause learning disabilities and behavioral problems," the CDC says of childhood lead poisoning. "At very high levels, it can cause seizures, coma and even death. Lead poisoning frequently goes unrecognized because it often occurs with no obvious symptoms.”

Children from newborn to 6 years of age are most vulnerable because their brains grow at the fastest rate during these years. In fact, in the first three years of life, connections in the brain and nervous system are formed that “control thought, learning, hearing, movement, behavior and emotions.” All this brain growth going on in young children coincides with behaviors and developmental milestones like crawling, teething and putting just about anything in their mouths.

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Unfortunately, once your child is exposed to lead, the damage has already been done because the effects of lead poisoning are permanent, which is why it is crucial to prevent exposure.

In order to keep as many children safe as possible, all parents should be informed and educated on the dangers and risk factors of lead poisoning by their pediatricians, but as it stands many are not because their pediatricians don’t consider them to be at risk.

Here’s the thing, though: pediatricians make mistakes when assessing risk factors. Reuters cites an example in 2013 where Amanda Gries, a Hollywood film editor who was concerned about the peeling paint and dust in a “century-old mansion” she was renting, had to insist that her son be screened for lead before his first birthday. “The doctor didn’t want to test,” Gries told Reuters. “The message was, ‘Don’t worry, he’s not at risk.’ It was like he didn’t fit the profile.”

Guess what? The child tested at almost double the CDC’s threshold.

You might be asking yourself why lead poisoning is still a thing in the U.S., especially since the government has been working on eliminating lead poisoning since the 1970s. Well, huge strides have been made, but “legacy lead” remains. Legacy lead is found in the paint of old buildings, in pipes, in batteries, in soil, in water sources and even playgrounds.

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As sobering as the findings of the Reuters investigation are, the truth is that things are probably much worse because all the available info is not yet in, so to speak. They've only received data covering about 60 percent of the U.S. population at the neighborhood level. "There are many more poisoned neighborhoods left uncharted," Reuters suggests.

Spreading the news of this investigation is incredibly important right now because the current president's administration wants to make big cuts in the federal budget that would take billions of dollars away from local and state programs that are currently set up to protect kids from lead exposure and the permanent health issues it causes.

Some of the places that would be hit the hardest by Trump’s proposed cuts are places that supported him during the election. If successful, “the Trump administration would eliminate a $27 million program that trains private contractors on lead removal, and a $21 million program that funds lead abatement projects in Alaska, Illinois, Ohio, Oklahoma and California," according to the Reuters investigation.

The problem with the current administration trying to save money by eliminating these programs is that in the long run, we'll still have to pay the cost when more children need treatment for health issues and learning disabilities caused by lead poisoning.

As Dr. Gale Burstein, health commissioner in Erie County points out, “We are dooming future generations” if we don't address this epidemic head on.

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