False security

April 24, 2003

THERE IS no such thing as a safe level of lead exposure for young children.

The science is growing clearer. Yet while this should be a call to preventive action - and while at least 1,100 city children live with elevated lead levels as a result of the unheeded cry - some Baltimore school officials seem oddly inured to the message.

Listen as they downplay the potential harm of lead rediscovered in the drinking water in old city school buildings. Soft-pedaling won't make it go away. With each new detail emerging in this disaster, a picture of past bureaucratic negligence and worse - disregard for the schoolchildren's welfare - further takes shape.

The warnings that the city failed to take seriously in 1992 are no less potent today, as the health department prepares to test children in the 15 worst-hit elementary schools and the school system gets set to retest plumbing in every school.

The greater public health threat is the flaking, shedding lead-based paint in older city homes, the officials say, and that's true. Sipping contaminated water at the school drinking fountain may indeed have posed a lesser risk. But it was a risk hidden from the children and staff, in many cases - a risk they had a right to know about since district officials were aware of it for a decade. And it was a risk that could have been controlled, if not eradicated, with a decade of investment and leadership.

There should be no doubt in anyone's mind: The drinking water in some schools was hazardous to health. Whether individuals can prove harm remains unclear. At Pimlico Elementary School, to give just one example, tests commissioned by the school system in 1992 identified a fountain dispensing water with about 38 times the lead level currently considered acceptable by the Environmental Protection Agency.

At that level, how much would a small child have to sip to be poisoned? For now, there's only speculation: Maybe a liter a day, depending on the child's size, maybe less; no one's sure. So here's a better question: Why did school and health officials gamble with the children's well-being instead of ensuring that every building so seriously contaminated took proper, permanent action?

Lead poisoning confounds because it is as preventable as it is debilitating. The hazards are well documented: brain and nerve damage, behavioral and developmental impairment, even death in severe cases. Society bears the cost in special education placements and high rates of youth crime.

Over three decades, research has refined our understanding of lead poisoning's early, swift and largely irreversible threat. The amount of lead exposure considered safe has been lowered several times, from 60 micrograms per deciliter of blood in the 1960s, to 30 in the late 1970s, to 10 in the 1990s. Just last week, a report in The New England Journal of Medicine implied this guideline should be revised downward yet again.

In this latest study, researchers found declining IQs among 172 preschoolers whose lead levels were below 10. Although further testing is needed - many factors affect IQ, so it's not possible to say definitively that lead is the cause - these findings should make Baltimore shudder.

They imply that it takes very little exposure to lead to do plenty of harm to a child's cognitive functioning. More than a sip? We don't know. What's most reinforced by this study is the certainty that the best weapon against lead poisoning is prevention; and that's exactly where Baltimore let its schoolchildren down.

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