Lead is still poisoning our children

What if there was a completely preventable disease that affected one in 38 American children under the age of six and Congress effectively eliminated the funding that supports efforts to eradicate the cause of the disease? There is such a disease — lead poisoning — and Congress did slash funding for lead poisoning prevention at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the most recent federal budget.

Every year more than half a million children are poisoned by lead in their homes, leaving them with irreversible brain damage that will affect them for the rest of their lives. Children with lead poisoning will be challenged to succeed in school, as lead has a direct negative impact on reading and learning abilities. These children are seven times more likely to drop out of school, have higher rates of attention deficit disorder and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder. They are more likely to engage in aggressive or violent behavior. All of this costs taxpayers more than $43 billion a year in expenses associated with lead poisoning.

But it's not just children who are impacted by lead poisoning. Recent studies have found a 19 percent increase in cardiac arrest in adults exposed to lead, as well as a 46 percent increase in the rate of early mortality. Pregnant women exposed to lead have significantly higher incidences of still births, miscarriages and low birth weight babies.

Combating lead poisoning enables us to address one of the root causes of poor school performance. For all of the money invested by philanthropies and the federal government to improve educational outcomes, there are still hundreds of thousands of children who will never be able to learn and succeed like their peers. For every dollar invested in preventing lead poisoning there is a return of up to $200, not to mention the life-changing impact that education can make on a child's life.

There is no arguing that lead is a dangerous neurotoxin or that we have made great progress over the last four decades in reducing the number of children poisoned. However, de-funding lead programs and reducing the influence of the lead poisoning prevention advisory panel that informs the CDC (as a reorganization proposed by the agency's director, Thomas Friedan, would do) will take us right back to where we were four decades ago — risking the lives of children and families.

There are few diseases for which we have the known cure, but lead poisoning is one of them. If we remove the hazards from a home, we drastically reduce the likelihood of lead poisoning and can effectively eliminate it as a major public health threat. It is that simple.

Over the next five years the Green & Healthy Homes Initiative is committed to advancing a national agenda to reduce the rate of childhood lead poisoning by 75 percent. Through education, enforcement of existing regulations and hazard reduction efforts, we can achieve this goal and save a generation of children from lead's toxic legacy.

Ruth Ann Norton is the executive director of the Green & Healthy Homes Initiative (formerly the Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning). Her email is ranorton@ghhi.org.

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