WASHINGTON -- The federal government has begun a broad effort to eliminate lead poisoning in children over the next decade.
The government's new plans, being drawn up as separate actions by three agencies, are aimed at halving the amount of lead in children's blood.
Lead attacks the nervous system and causes a range of effects in children, from a drop in academic performance to mental retardation.
The plans also call for eliminating lead paint in all the nation's homes over the next decade.
The government approach would include an alert, monitoring and treatment.
Under the plan a community, which could be a city neighborhood or a small town, would be alerted by a local health agency when moderately high levels of lead were found in children living there; there would be monitoring of the diet and lead hazards at home of those children with higher levels, and there would be medical treatment for those children with the highest levels.
Dr. William Roper, director of the federal Centers for Disease Control, said: "We believe that lead poisoning is the No. 1 environmental problem facing America's children. Therefore, it will take a major societal effort to eliminate it."
The greatest hazard of lead poisoning comes from lead paint and the dust that comes from the paint.
The new plans could impose a heavy burden on state and city health departments, which have the chief responsibility for testing and treatment.
The plan of the Department of Health and Human Services, devised by the federal Centers for Disease Control, is called "The Strategic Plan for Eliminating Childhood Lead Poisoning." It is expected to be made public in the next few months.
In a report made public last Friday as the first part of the federal effort, the Department of Housing and Urban Development outlined a comprehensive plan to eliminate lead paint in America's houses. It estimated it would cost $1.9 billion to $2.4 billion a year to test and remove lead from homes with the most serious hazards.
Based on a new survey, the housing agency said that of all homes occupied by families with young children, 38 percent would have "priority" hazards. The total annual cost of testing and abatement in these homes would be $1.9 billion to $2.4 billion, the report said.
The Department of Health and Human Services has drawn up guidelines for taking action on lead in the blood. It will start at 10 micrograms of lead for each deciliter of blood, at which level local officials are to be alerted so they may consider setting up programs to check lead levels in children living in high-risk areas.
It is believed that 4 to 6 million children have lead in their blood at this level or above, at which damage to the nervous system may begin.