Although Down Overall, Children’s Lead Poisoning Cases Still High in Some Areas

We have long been covering the issue of lead exposure and <"">lead poisoning, which is considered by many to be one of the most important chronic environmental illnesses affecting children today, with exposure leading to a variety of dangerous effects. And, while, overall, cases of childhood lead poisoning have fallen dramatically in recent decades, some of the poorest and most vulnerable populations in Southern California are disproportionately affected, says the UCLA Institute of the Environment.

Lead exposure can cause brain and nervous system damage, behavioral and learning problems, slowed growth, hearing problems, headaches, mental and physical retardation, and behavioral and other health problems in children and unborn children. Even at very low levels, lead is harmful to children’s health and at elevated blood lead levels children experience neurological problems, anemia, lower IQ scores, and shortened attention spans. At elevated levels, children can suffer from comas, seizures, and death. Adults are not immune to the effects of lead and lead is known to cause cancer, reproductive harm, and nervous system damage in this population.

Hilary Godwin, a professor of environmental health sciences at the UCLA School of Public Health said recent elevated levels of lead exposure in California can be seen in areas with larger numbers of babies born to families on Medi-Cal, California’s health insurance program for the poor, as well as in areas with larger numbers of housing units built before lead-based paint was prohibited. Godwin is also a toxicologist and environmental chemist specializing in lead poisoning and its connection to developmental problems in children

Despite efforts to control lead poisoning, serious cases still occur. Once poisoned, no organ system is immune and, of particular concern, is the developing brain because of leads’ long-lasting effects, which can continue well into puberty and beyond.

“New laws, regulations, public health outreach and a strong shift to prevention have helped to significantly reduce exposure of children to lead,” said Godwin. “But we need to do a better job of getting word to poor families that lead poisoning is totally preventable, because children in low-income and older neighborhoods are far more likely to be exposed,” she added. Godwin’s review was published May 28 in the quarterly UCLA Institute of the Environment Southern California Environmental Report Card, a publication intended to analyze data in a format useful to the general public.

Lead poisoning is difficult to recognize because its symptoms are subtle and no specific indicators exist or point to contamination. Children with lead poisoning may experience irritability, sleeplessness or excess lethargy, poor appetite, headaches, abdominal pain with or without vomiting—and generally without diarrhea—constipation, and changes in activity level. A child with lead toxicity can be iron deficient and pale because of anemia and can be either hyperactive or lethargic. There may also be dental pointers; for instance, lead lines on gingival tissue.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines an elevated blood lead level as 10 micrograms per deciliter or higher. And, although lead levels have dropped with the removal of lead in paint and gasoline, there have been a number of emerging sources for lead contamination, such as contaminated candies—many imported from Mexico—contaminated toys—generally from China—and drinking water in Los Angeles Unified School District schools.

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