The scandal around tainted water in Flint, Michigan put the issue of lead poisoning back in the spotlight. Yet lead-based paint remains one of the biggest sources of lead poisoning in the United States, including Connecticut.
The number of children exposed to lead has declined since the 1970s, and the incidence of lead poisoning has decreased significantly due to awareness and education. But health officials say it’s still a problem.
About a half million children a year nationwide, between the ages of 1 and 5, test positive for lead in their blood. And there are no safe blood lead levels, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Even low lead levels can have long-term effects on a child's IQ, academic achievement, and ability to pay attention. Higher levels can cause irreversible brain damage, slow growth, and other developmental delays.
Homes are the primary source, according to Dr. Carl Baum, Director of the Yale Regional Lead Treatment Center.
“It’s not water here in Connecticut,” said Baum. “It’s really older housing. We have very old housing stock. And most children are exposed through dust in their home settings.”
Dust that contains lead paint, which was banned for household use 40 years ago. But houses built before 1978 are likely to contain some lead-based paint or pipes.
That accounts for about 83 percent of the homes in New Haven alone, where more than 300 children a year test above the CDC’s lead level of concern. That level is currently set at 5 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood. It’s the lowest reference level the CDC’s ever set.
“Back in the '70s, a lead level in the 60 range was considered acceptable,” Baum said. “And over time, with more information about the effects of lead poisoning, we dropped that acceptable level to 40, to 30, to 25, to 10. But then in 2012 we dropped it to 5.”
Baum said children should be tested twice between the ages of 1 and 3. And it’s not just water and chipped lead-based paint that’s pushed the issue of testing. Children can also be exposed to lead through other sources including soil and toys.
Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro calls it a crisis. In response, she’s sponsoring legislation that would increase federal funding for the CDC’s Lead Poisoning Prevention Program, from $17 million to $150 million.
“What does the money do? It is money to the states for screening, for referral for treatment and for case management for children who have lead poisoning,” DeLauro said.
DeLauro said the bill is not enough to combat lead poisoning nationwide, but it would certainly be an improvement.
In Connecticut, the Department of Public Health reported that 2,500 children had lead poisoning in 2015, with more than 1,500 new cases identified.