For the past 2 years, the issue of lead – in paint, water, dust, soil, food, toys, and kids’ blood – has been extensively covered in the news. The crises in Flint and East Chicago have laid bare the vulnerability of communities across the U.S. The evidence is now clear that there is no safe level of lead in children’s blood. What used to be tolerable is no longer acceptable. Evidence from studies of children show clearly that levels of lead in blood affect brain development at levels below those once considered acceptable and should not be tolerated. We must be vigilant to prevent young children’s exposure to lead.
We have already made substantial progress as a nation. From 1999 to 2014, mean blood lead levels in young children dropped 56% and the levels over 5 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood dropped 86%. This change was due to smart policies, effective regulations, funding, and vigilance from federal, state and local agencies as well as private and non-profit organizations. Despite this headway, lead exposure continues to be a significant problem, preventing our communities from thriving and holding back the future generations from achieving their full potential.
Last year, several organizations developed comprehensive plans1 to eliminate lead exposure. Each added value to the discussion. Today, a new report from the Health Impact Project, a collaboration of The Pew Charitable Trusts and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), provides a rigorous analysis of the costs of lead and the impact of various policy solutions to help protect children from the harms of lead exposure. My colleague, Ananya Roy, and I served as advisors on the project.
The Pew/RWJF report found that no source of lead exposure predominates and that a comprehensive response is needed to continue to make progress on protecting children from lead. The report estimates that for the babies born in 2018, if blood lead levels were kept to zero micrograms per deciliter, the benefits would amount to $84 billion, excluding the cost of intervening, and made five key findings:
- Removing leaded drinking water service lines from the homes of children born in 2018 would protect more than 350,000 children and yield $2.7 billion in future benefits, or about $1.33 per dollar invested.
- Eradicating lead paint hazards from older homes of children from low-income families would provide $3.5 billion in future benefits, or approximately $1.39 per dollar invested, and protect more than 311,000 children.
- Ensuring that contractors comply with the Environmental Protection Agency’s rule that requires lead-safe renovation, repair, and painting practices would protect about 211,000 children born in 2018 and provide future benefits of $4.5 billion, or about $3.10 per dollar spent.
- Eliminating lead from airplane fuel would protect more than 226,000 children born in 2018 who live near airports, generate $262 million in future benefits, and remove roughly 450 tons of lead from the environment every year.
- Providing targeted, evidence-based academic and behavioral interventions to the roughly 1.8 million children with a history of lead exposure could increase their lifetime family incomes and likelihood of graduating from high school and college and decrease their potential for teen parenthood and criminal conviction.
Collectively, the federal, state and local governments would receive an estimated $3.2 billion in benefits from the first three actions through education savings and increased revenues. The Pew/RWJF Report describes 10 policies to provide a comprehensive strategic response to reduce harm from lead. Each policy recommendation includes more details on the federal, state and local actions that need to be undertaken.
- Reduce lead in drinking water in homes built before 1986 and other places children frequent.
- Remove lead paint hazards from low-income housing built before 1960 and other places children spend time.
- Increase enforcement of the federal renovation, repair, and painting rule.
- Reduce lead in food and consumer products.
- Reduce air lead emissions.
- Clean up contaminated soil.
- Improve blood lead testing among children at high risk of exposure and find and remediate the sources of their exposure.
- Ensure access to developmental and neuropsychological assessments and appropriate high-quality programs for children with elevated blood lead levels.
Data and Research
- Improve public access to local data.
- Fill gaps in research to better target state and local prevention and response efforts.
This report comes just in time for the federal government to update its 2000 strategy to eliminate childhood lead poisoning. In May 2017, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reported that the President’s Task Force on Environmental Health Risks and Safety Risks to Children, co-chaired by EPA and Department of Health and Human Service, is “developing an updated federal strategy to address lead risks to children from a variety of sources.” This effort was launched in November 2016 with an inventory of key federal programs to reduce childhood lead exposure. Past progress shows that sound policies can have an impact and the Pew/RWJF report shows there is much more that can be done. We hope the task force will take its recommendations to heart as it moves forward with the updated strategy.
1 See Coalition of 49 Health, Environmental & Children’s Organizations, Call for National Strategy to End Lead Poisoning and Lead Exposure (October 2016), Green and Health Homes Initiative’s Strategic Plan to End Childhood Lead Poisoning (October 2016), National Safe and Healthy Housing Coalition’s Find It, Fix It, Fund It Campaign (December 2016), and National Lead Summit’s Playbook to End Lead Poisoning in 5 Years (March 2017).
By Tom Neltner
Tom Neltner, J.D., Chemicals Policy Director
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