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Half a Million U.S. Children Believed to Have Lead Poisoning

Update Date: Apr 05, 2013 06:08 PM EDT

More than half a million children in the U.S. are believed to have lead poisoning after the government lowered the threshold for lead poisoning last year.

One in 38 children is believed to be at risk. Too much lead can be harmful to developing brains and can result in a lower IQ. Meanwhile, testing and preventative measures for lead poisoning are difficult to organize after last year's budget cuts eliminated federal grant funding for these programs.

Those cuts represent "an abandonment of children," said David Rosner, a Columbia University public health historian.

"We've been acting like the problem was solved and this was a thing of the past," he added.

The United States used to have a much larger concern regarding lead poisoning before lead was removed from paint, gasoline and other products. Lead has been linked to harm brain development, kidneys and other organs. High levels in the blood can cause coma, convulsions and death, while lower levels can reduce intelligence, impair hearing and behavior and cause other problems, according to the Huffington Post.

Lead has been banned in household paint since 1978 and was eliminated in gasoline by the late 1980s. Commonly, children who get lead poisoning live in old dilapidated homes or homes that are under renovation. Paint chips or dust become a threat because children will find them on the floor and put them in their mouth. Soil contaminated by old leaded gasoline, dust from industrial worksites and tainted drinking water can also be contributing factors to lead poisoning.

The majority of lead poisoning cases are handled by tracking and removing the lead source, then monitoring the children to make sure lead levels do not spike again. In the case of extremely high levels of lead and other heavy metals children need to undergo a special treatment.

After the government lowered the threshold, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) analyzed old blood tests from 1,653 children under the age of six to determine how many would have lead poisoning under the new terms.

The CDC found 50 children had blood lead levels higher than the new threshold of five micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood. From this result, the officials calculated that an estimated 535,000 young children have lead poisoning.

Last year the threshold was 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter and experts estimated approximately between 77,000 and 255,000 young children under six had high lead levels. Children at this age are considered to be at high risk for neurological problems if exposed to too much lead.

In the CDC study, elevated lead levels were discovered for a third of the children only when they were tested by researchers, suggesting that many children with lead poisoning are undiagnosed.

Overall, this year's CDC study found children who were poor or African-American had higher lead counts on average, according to CDC official Mary Jean Brown, an author of the study.

Doctors often refer parents to local health departments to get their homes checked out after detecting lead in children. However, Congress cut the CDC's lead program's budget last year from about $29 million to $2 million. That ended CDC grants to local health departments for their programs, according to the Huffington Post.

For years local health departments have been tracking the number of kids with blood levels at 5 or greater and reported lead levels have been dropping steadily, even under the new threshold.

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