Though the incidence is declining, lead exposure remains one of the most common preventable poisonings affecting children. Exposure to lead has been linked to a number of neurological, behavioral, and developmental problems both in childhood and in later life. Children who experience lead exposure early in life often have difficulties with inattentiveness and hyperactivity, which can affect their performance in school and, ultimately, their educational achievement over the long term
While almost all children are exposed to at least small amounts of lead, a child’s individual risk of exposure to harmful amounts of lead – particularly in urban areas – is closely linked to his or her neighborhood and socioeconomic status. Recent data published by researchers working in Rhode Island illustrates the importance of neighborhood in risk for lead exposure. The researchers mapped statewide data on incidence of childhood lead poisoning taken over a 12-year period. They found that in some census blocks, the risk for lead poisoning was almost 50 percent higher than in others. The highest rate of lead poisoning occurred in the state’s lowest income communities, in which many families also still live in older housing that is more likely to contain lead-based paint. Researchers hope that these findings may be used to improve the efficacy of clean-up efforts in the state.
Lead poisoning is also a serious public health concern in Cleveland. As recently as 2007, rates of childhood lead poisoning were 16% in Cuyahoga County, 22% in Cleveland and 24% in East Cleveland. While these numbers are still unacceptably high, they have been declining in the last decade. This decline may be attributed in part to public health efforts to clean up lead-based paint, but a multidisciplinary team of researchers at CWRU, including Schubert Center Faculty Associate Dr. James Lalumandier, has offered an alternative explanation. A chemical analysis of the layers of teeth extracted from Cleveland residents has shown that lead levels are lower in the layers that were formed in later years. Furthermore, researchers estimate that this decline in lead levels in teeth occurred simultaneously with the decline in leaded gasoline use in the United States as a whole. This research provides a more comprehensive explanation for the declining levels of lead poisoning nationally. The researchers emphasize, however, that these findings do not undermine the importance of improving housing standards, including removal of lead-based paint, which is still essential to preventing childhood lead poisoning.