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For the first time since 1991, the CDC has lowered the threshold for what’s considered lead poisoning in children under six. Lead is an incredibly toxic metal that harms developing brains and nervous systems, leading to a lower IQ and other problems even at very low levels of exposure. The old threshold was 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood; the new number is 5 micrograms.

The change was made because research has consistently shown that young children are harmed when they have blood lead levels lower than 10 micrograms.

Really, “there is no safe level of blood lead in children,’’ said Christopher Portier, of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He heads the agency’s environmental health programs.

Under the old standard, lead poisoning in children had been declining in the U.S. Experts estimated that somewhere between 77,000 and 255,000 children had high levels of lead, though many of them are undiagnosed. The change could raise the count to 450,000 cases. –

Children are most commonly exposed to lead if they live in old homes that are either in disrepair or under renovation. Houses built before 1978 most likely contain lead-based paint somewhere, usually in the windows if these have not been replaced. A window with lead paint on it releases lead dust into the air simply by being opened and closed. This lead dust then settles onto the floor where it can be picked up by little ones, whose hands, of course, are always in their mouths. Another major source of lead is soil that has been contaminated, by lead paint on the exterior of houses, by nearby industrial worksites, or by old highways nearby (leaded gasoline from decades past leaked into soil around these).

Unfortunately, the CDC’s funding was recently dramatically cut in the area of lead poisoning control and prevention. I should say, last year our valiant Congress slashed the CDC’s lead program budget from $29 million to $2 million. This leaves the CDC with a lot of ideas for improving the lead poisoning situation but no money to implement any of them.

If you live in an old house with young children, you can either get your house professionally tested for lead or you can obtain (much cheaper) lead test kits online or at hardware stores. Kits will allow you to spot-test places that look suspicious. Please replace old peeling windows ASAP if funds allow, for these are the most common place for kids to pick up lead. Make sure whoever does any renovations or work in your house has training in dealing with lead hazards. Seal off work being done with plastic sheets; keep kids away from the work area and don’t track lead dust around the house on your shoes. Please see the CDC’s website for more prevention tips.

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