The campaign against lead-based products has diminished the prominence of the heavy metal in common household items, yet numerous young children still fall susceptible to lead poisoning, a statistic that’s increased in scope with new health standards.
Due to a regulatory lowering in the threshold of lead levels in blood samples last year, health officials now estimate more than half a million U.S. children could have lead poisoning — about twice as many as previously thought — according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Furthermore, at least 4 million U.S. households have children under 6 years old that could be exposed to varying degrees of lead, the federal health agency reported.
The CDC lowered the threshold of blood lead level from 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood to 5 micrograms/dL blood in children younger than 6 years old, deemed to be at heightened risk of neurological problems associated with lead.
Over-exposure to lead can cause harm to nearly every bodily system but creates the most concern with internal organs and the central nervous system. Too much lead can hinder brain development in young children, leading to a lower intelligence levels or causing behavioral problems.
Dr. Jeffrey Mudd, pediatrician with the Pediatric Group of Paducah, said the practice takes routine lead poisoning checks of patients at 1 and 2 years of age via a simple finger-stick blood sample. Children must also have a documented lead test before being admitted into public preschool.
Unless a parent suspects a child to have been in close contact with the metal, lead poisoning can often go undiagnosed.
“A lot of times the first sign you’ll see is a child is anemic and that can lead you down the path to making that diagnosis,” Mudd said. “Then we have parents catching their child eating paint chips or they have a 50-year-old toy that’s painted with lead paint in their mouth.”
Lead has been banned in household paint since 1978 and was eliminated from gasoline by the late 1980s, but Mudd said he has treated a patient who contracted lead poisoning from inhaling residual chemical dust left on his father’s work clothes.
Short-term indications of lead poisoning, generally, include anemia, gastrointestinal issues, vomiting, abdominal pain and loss of appetite. If left unchecked for weeks or months, the poisoning can lead to the severe complications with the central nervous system.
The Pediatric Group reports about one case yearly on average to the health department, but most suspected cases are minor and result in a measured tracking via blood samples. There is a treatment to remove lead, typically reserved for extremely high levels of exposure.
Following a CDC study into blood lead levels in children, researchers concluded counts were higher on average in children who were poor or living in old neighborhoods.
“Inner-city youth tend to be at higher risk, because there’s more environmental concerns,” Mudd said, pointing out those houses tend to be of older construction and can contain older pipes.
After the CDC lowered the blood lead standard, the same study reviewed old blood tests from about 1,653 children under 6 to determine how many would have lead poisoning under the new definition, finding about 3 percent confirmatory. That being said, researchers discovered about a third of the children tested had elevated levels only after screened by researchers.
“When you look for it, you find it,” David Rosner, a Columbia University public health historian, told the Associated Press.
Most recent state statistics compiled by the CDC in 2009, showed no Purchase Area counties reported any confirmed cases of lead poisoning, although the numbers of children tested varied from less than 1 percent in Marshall County to about 25 percent in Fulton County.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.
Call Will Pinkston, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8676 or follow @WCPinkston on Twitter.