New report offers 'playbook' to prevent and respond to childhood lead exposure

Sep 6, 2017

A new report compiled by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trusts offers some key findings and recommendations for preventing and responding to the problem of childhood lead exposure.

The report, titled "10 Policies to Prevent and Respond to Childhood Lead Exposure," is a playbook for federal, state and local lawmakers to take action. It addresses the legacy of lead in paint, water and consumer products, calling for an investment in lead prevention now.

Such exposure is linked to hindered learning and behavioral development. Giridhar Mallya, senior police analyst at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, said the payoff of prevention is better health and greater academic achievement for kids down the road.

An investigative report released by Reuters News in April showed Buffalo to be one of the most at-risk cities in the nation for child exposure to lead. Mallya said officials have a responsibility to make families aware of hazards to prevent exposure in the first place.

"For too long in this country, we've waited until kids are poisoned to respond," he said. "In addition to better testing, we need to test for sources of exposure."

He cited numerous communities that have processes in place to test for lead in water and in homes so they can proactively respond. However, while Buffalo and Erie County are making progress, prevention efforts have been slow.

According to the Reuters report, 40 percent of children living in four zip codes in Buffalo, tested between the years of 2006 and 2014, registered elevated levels of lead in their blood.

"Just to give you a comparison, in Flint, MI during the peak of that city's crisis, Centers for Disease Control testing found about five percent of tested children had elevated blood levels," said Michael Pell, one of the Reuters reporters who worked on the study.

The RWJF/PCT report focuses on lead prevention in paint and water, the chief culprits of poisoning among children. Paint chips taste sweet, so they serve as candy-like confections for small children.

"If you live in a home that was built before 1960, you more than likely have lead paint in your home," Mallya said. "And if it's not properly maintained, meaning it's chipping of flaking, or if there's water damage, kids are more likely to be exposed to lead. So there are real responsibilities for local and state leaders inspecting for those sources of exposure and then making data available for consumers because, otherwise, they won't know about it."

While the report stresses that prevention is key, it also offers a set recommendations for kids who have already been exposed to lead. They include making sure children receive proper developmental testing to flag academic or behavioral problems, linking them to early childhood or special education and providing appropriate nutritional supports. 

"We know kids who have high blood levels also have poor nutrition and those two things can interact," Mallya said.

The report's biggest takeaway? Put prevention systems in place to keep children from being exposed and provide proper testing and supports for the millions of kids nationwide who have already been exposed.