Adobe Stock
America has made huge strides in reducing the number of children who are exposed to lead. But with all that we know — including how devastating it can be for young children — why haven't we finished the job? We see the embers and we've reduced the size of the pile, but the nation hasn't yet prioritized adequately turning on the water hose.

When a wildfire is burning, every effort is made to snuff it out completely. Nobody would figure it's a good idea to reduce the blaze to a few smoldering ashes and then declare it "good enough."

To some degree, though, that's what some communities have done when it comes to eliminating children's exposure to lead. In the last half-century, we've learned a ton about the damage lead poisoning does and how to prevent or mitigate it. We have figured out the science, and massive efforts have made huge inroads into stopping what has been over time a plague for developing minds, particularly among poor children of color.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention doesn't mince words about how badly lead exposure can mess up young lives. It can damage the brain and nervous system, the CDC says, leading to learning problems, stunted growth and development and speech and hearing impairments.

Little folks exposed to lead — and there's no level that's actually considered safe — may not do very well in school or behave very well later, either. It's not a matter of "won't," but one of "can't," the experts say. Lead exposure can stunt IQ. Some people believe there are links to criminal activity and overall bad behavior that may trace back to lead exposure. If that's true — and data is quite persuasive, although no one thinks lead comes close to explaining all or even most of it — eradicating the problem could have a massive economic and societal impact by reducing crime, forget the reduction in human suffering.

In a blog post for Child Trends this week, Kristin Anderson Moore suggests that the success America has had so far in reducing lead exposure may be part of the reason teen pregnancy and violence have dropped considerably.

Child Trends just released a report showing how far we've already come in eliminating lead, which was pretty much everywhere before the mid-'70s. It was in household paint — and still poses risks when small children live in older houses that have the old lead-based paint, especially if some renovation's being done without taking precautions to keep the lead under wraps. It's other places, too, including in some imported toys and other products, such as certain imported candies.

Flint, Michigan, officials were recently hit hard with a scandal involving lead in the public water system. It turned out many of the children, particularly in the poorest neighborhoods, had toxic levels of lead and all the complications that ride along, hurting both kids' prospects and their todays because of lead in the pipes.

While the CDC notes huge progress toward the national 2020 goal of eradicating lead exposure in the young entirely, more than a half-million small children, 5 and under, have blood lead levels that can do real harm. And that number can go up or down for no other reason than that 24 million American homes have what the CDC calls "deteriorated lead-based paint and elevated levels of lead-contaminated house dust." Every time a family with children moves into such a home, there's danger. And kids already live in 4 million of those houses.

The CDC says the medical and special education costs run about $5,600 on average for children suffering serious exposure.

4 comments on this story

The point, though, is not so much that we know how to help young children who have been exposed to lead, although that is very good news. The better news still is that toxic lead exposure is preventable. As a country, we know what to do, from properly rehabbing old houses that have lead paint to testing products and banning those that contain it. We know how to check pipes for lead — and how to get rid of them, though it's costly.

I doubt, though, that it's more costly in real terms than doing nothing and squandering so much of the potential in the lives of youngsters who didn't need to suffer or be challenged in this way.

We see the embers and we've reduced the size of the pile, but the nation hasn't yet prioritized adequately turning on the water hose.

It's time.