Sarah Vogel, Ph.D., is Vice-President for Health.
Since the crisis in Flint hit the national headlines, the problem of lead exposure from drinking water has come under greater scrutiny. And for good reason. Seven to ten million American homes have water delivered through service lines made of lead pipe – the primary source of lead in drinking water. But the events in Flint also highlight the fact that despite decades of decline in the levels of lead in the blood of American children, we still have a lead problem in this country. Given that there is no safe level of exposure to lead, we have a lot of work to do. The current crisis offers a new opportunity to make significant progress, and we have a record of past achievement to learn from and build upon.
Forty years ago over 13 million young children in American had blood lead levels at or above 10 micrograms per deciliter (µg/dL). By 2000, that number had decreased to just under a half a million. The greatest reductions made were among low income and children of color who had the highest blood lead levels. As a result of such significant progress, many declared victory and organizations, including EDF, shifted their focus to other environmental health issues leaving considerable work still to be done on lead.
While blood lead levels were declining, scientific evidence was mounting to show there is no safe level of exposure to lead in infants and young children. Studies showed that adverse neurological effects were happening at lower and lower levels of lead exposure. In 2012, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reduced the level of lead in blood used to identify those with elevated exposure to 5 µg/dL. Today, approximately 500,000 children have levels at or above 5 µg/dL.
Despite the major declines in children’s blood lead levels at or above 10 µg/dL and decreases in racial and income disparities since the mid-1970s, progress has stalled over the past decade. And still disparities persist. Children living in poverty remain at the greatest risk. Indeed, children in poor households are three times more likely, and African-American children are twice as likely as white children, to have elevated blood lead levels. Read More