Lead poisoning isn’t just a thing of the past

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By Katherine Jett



Last week the Center for Disease Control and Prevention announced it had revised its more than 20 year old policy regarding lead poisoning in children.

While lead poisoning may sound like a disease of the past, it is currently the most preventable environmental disease of young children in the United States today.

The old guideline considered an elevated blood lead level to be 10 micrograms per deciliter (ug/dL) or greater and the new cutoff is now 5 ug/dL.  More than 250,000 children in the US have high lead levels as measured by the previous CDC standard.

This new standard could help identify an additional 200,000 children with dangerously high blood lead levels, levels that can lead to lifelong irreversible effects.  Because the symptoms can be somewhat vague, lead poisoning can be difficult to recognize without appropriate testing.  Lead levels on the low end of the spectrum can cause hearing loss, IQ decline, impaired growth, learning disabilities, and behavioral problems.  Individuals with very high lead levels can experience hearing loss, anemia, seizures, coma and even death.

Most children exposed to lead unknowingly ingest the toxin from simple contact with their environment. Lead was removed from paint in 1978 but paint in buildings older than this contain lead.  Gasoline contained lead prior to the 1980s and this often contributed to lead contamination of soil.   Children may eat paint chips on the ground or touch contaminated dust and soil around old, deteriorating structures.  Airborne lead exposure can occur from fumes from sanding or heating old paint, burning car batteries, or using lead in hobbies or crafts.  Other less common sources include old lead water pipes, lead glazed ceramic jars used as food containers, parental occupations, and folk remedies. 

Lead is a potent toxin to nerve and brain tissue and accumulates in soft tissue and bone over time.  Lead is most toxic in children under age 6 because their nervous system is still developing.  Pregnant women are also of special concern as high lead levels can lead to miscarriage, premature birth, or birth defects.  If levels are very high chelation medications can be given to help lower levels, but this does not reverse the damage already done to the body. 

Kentucky has a plan in place to screen for lead exposure that has been successful in decreasing increased blood lead levels in children.  All children with risk factors and/or living in target areas should be screened at 12 and 24 months of age.  Those children enrolled in Medicaid or Passport are also required to be screened at 12 and 24 months of age.  Kids 26-72 months of age should be tested if they have not been already.

Other programs such as WIC and Head Start require testing as well.

Specifically, in Henry County, the state has listed 40007 (Bethlehem) and 40058 (Port Royal) on its targeted zip code screening list. The goal of screening programs is to identify elevated lead levels in children early and then determine their exposure source.  By cleaning up contaminated areas we can protect everyone from future exposure. 

If you have questions about potential lead exposures and testing, talk with your doctor.   Early detection of high blood lead levels can lead to a more optimistic outcome for the patient, while identifying and eliminating the source of lead exposure leads to a brighter future for our community.

Katherine Jett, MD, is an internal medicine and pediatrics specialist with Baptist Medical Associates Campbellsburg. She can be reached at 532-7341. For more information on Dr. Jett, office hours or a map, visit baptistmedicalassociates.com.  Articles from Dr. Jett will be appearing monthly.  If you have a suggestion for an article topic or question, please email her at bmasuggestiontopics@bhsi.com.