To help children learn, get the lead out

by on May 15 2013

by Tom Vernon and Shelly Yanoff 

Sometimes we fail to look for causes in conspicuous places. As we seek out reasons why our children are having trouble learning in school, tens of thousands of our kids’ futures are being cut down because, in their younger years, they were exposed to lead. 

For at least two decades, neurological and epidemiological research has told us that lead affects academic performance, classroom behavior, and the rest of life. We know so much more today from more recent research. Now we know that even low levels of lead can cause serious damage. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention bleakly states: “No safe blood lead level in children has been identified.”

Though lead levels have gone down in our cars, our homes, and our children, lead-based paint and lead-laden dust and soil still surround much of our older housing and neighborhoods, holding back the promise of too many children.

Lead poisoning has been called the silent epidemic affecting our kids, our schools, and, in fact, all of us. Too often we dismiss lead’s impact on children, because it is one of many factors that stunt our children and because we were lulled when the numbers of children with high blood lead levels declined after lead was removed from gasoline and consumer products. But these successes should inspire us to do more, not less.

Today, using the new “danger” reference level, the CDC estimates that more than a half-million children in the United States under the age of 6 are poisoned by lead. The number at levels below the danger level is estimated to be at least four times greater. 

Closer to home, from our state’s blood tests of children 72 months of age or younger, we know that 15,897 children had unsafe blood lead levels in 2011; 20,185 children were reported in 2010. Unfortunately, that‘s only a part of the story. The 2010-11 numbers are from tested children, but only 17 percent of children were tested in either year. We do not have good data for the number of children with blood levels below the reference level and must rely on estimates based on national data.

Moving from blood tests to our classrooms, studies in schools in Detroit, Milwaukee, Providence, the state of North Carolina and elsewhere confirm what teachers are reporting: Many children in their classrooms cannot concentrate, cannot seem to control their behaviors, and are losing out on learning.

In Milwaukee, for example, a study of classroom learning, published in the Annals of Epidemiology last year, concludes, “Children exposed to amounts of lead before age 3 years (that are insufficient to trigger intervention under current policies in many states) are nonetheless at a considerable educational disadvantage compared with their unexposed peers seven to eight years later. Exposed students are at greater risk of scoring below the proficient level, an outcome with serious negative consequences for both the student and the school.” Multiple other studies were summarized last year in the National Toxicology Program’s monograph, titled "Health Effects of Low-Level Lead," with findings that repeat the same results.

Many steps could be taken to lower the risk of lead and raise the life chances of the tens of thousands of our kids who are not learning as well as they could. It’s time to take those steps. Pennsylvania is an old Rust Belt state and, Philadelphia is an old city with lots of old houses. We have been cleaning some homes, and there is a new lead law that should help some, but we must do more: Replace more windows, remove or encapsulate more lead-based paint, keep the lead dust away, and educate more parents about lead poisoning. We must find and fix the most toxic houses -- those where, each year, children are poisoned.

Teachers and school administrators have a huge stake in this hidden epidemic and a powerful voice in helping to solve it. Childhood lead-poisoning prevention is a winnable battle. Together with parents, health-care and public health practitioners, and community members, we can get the lead out of kids’ lives. 

Tom Vernon is physician, board chairman of the National Center for Healthy Housing, and former executive director of the Colorado Department of Health.

Shelly Yanoff is a lifelong child advocate and the recently retired director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth. 

The opinions expressed are solely those of the authors.