Abating the Lead Problem

August 08, 1994

Lead can be toxic, even deadly. But results of a new survey of lead levels in Americans' blood demonstrate how concerted efforts to limit exposure can make a dramatic difference in public health.

Those results, published last month in the Journal of the American Medical Association, indicate that lead levels have dropped by 75 percent over the past 15 years. Whereas in the late 1970s, 88 percent of American children aged 1 to 5 years had levels considered worrisome, that proportion has dropped to 8.9 percent today. Lead may remain a problem in some segments of the population, particularly poor and minority households, but it's difficult to see how it can continue to be depicted as a pervasive environmental crisis.

Since the last national survey of blood lead levels, taken between 1976 and 1980, several factors have converged to reduce lead exposure drastically. When the first survey was taken, average Americans were exposed to lead in a variety of ways other than peeling lead paint. Gasoline fumes (which often settled in soil) and lead soldering in food and soft drink cans caused elevated blood levels throughout the population.

Now, elevated lead levels are found disproportionately in families living in older, poorly maintained housing, where young children can easily ingest peeling chips of paint or inhale lead-laden dust. Except for provoked cases -- for instance, householders undertaking renovation on older houses without taking proper precautions -- lead poisoning is now part of the thorny cluster of problems surrounding poverty.

We say thorny, because these are problems that can be effectively addressed only in a larger context. For Baltimore and other cities where housing stocks are older and likely to contain lead paint, the trade-offs can be distressing. Campaigns to remove all lead from housing cost huge sums of money. They can also have the perverse effect of removing low-income housing from the rental market, adding to the pressures that increase the number of homeless families.

In an ideal world, cities like Baltimore would simply enforce their housing codes; if properly maintained, lead paint poses minimal danger (after all, adult Americans grew up with it). A new state law requiring better inspections and treatment of deteriorating lead paint in rental properties should help protect vulnerable families. But there is still a need for better public education -- from public service announcements about the dangers of using a blow torch or power sander on lead paint to nutritional and housekeeping precautions that can be taken where potentially hazardous conditions do exist. In cities like Baltimore, vacuum cleaners with "HEPA" filters designed to pick up hazardous dust should be readily available from rental tool companies. The fact that they aren't shows public education on lead dangers has a long way to go.

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