Lead is highly toxic, especially to young children. It can harm a child’s brain, kidneys, bone marrow, and other body systems. At very high levels (70 micrograms of lead per deciliter of whole blood), lead can cause coma, convulsions, and death. Research demonstrates that even comparatively low levels of lead exposure are harmful. Elevated blood lead levels as low as 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter (ug/dL) in children are associated with diminished aptitude, adverse behavior, hearing loss, and impaired growth. Early detection through blood lead screening and prompt and effective treatment for high blood lead levels have virtually eliminated deaths and poisoning severe enough to cause a condition called lead encephalopathy, swelling of the brain, a condition that was quite common just 30 years ago.
The most common source of lead exposure for children today is lead paint in older housing and the contaminated lead dust and soil it generates. Exposure to lead in the environment is most dangerous to children under age six and particularly to children between the ages of one and three because of their hand-to-mouth behavior and increasing mobility. Further, their gastrointestinal systems absorb lead more efficiently than adults.
Exposure to elevated levels of lead affects all socioeconomic levels, but children living in poverty tend to be at greater risk. Lower income families are more likely to live in older housing with deferred maintenance that may result in lead paint hazards. Older homes, especially homes built prior to 1950, present the greatest risk to children because these homes are most likely to contain lead-based paint. Year 2000 census data indicate that over one third (37%) of homes in New York State, excluding NYC, were built prior to 1950. New York State has a higher percentage of pre-1950 built housing units available for occupancy than any other state.
The phase-out of leaded gasoline, leaded paint, and lead-soldered food and beverage containers, and the reduction of lead in drinking water, industrial emissions, and consumer goods have contributed to a dramatic reduction in exposure to environmental lead. Public health education efforts about current risk factors and programs to identify and eliminate lead hazards in homes have also contributed to this reduction. Despite this progress, lead exposure remains among the top environmental health problems for children today. In fact, the federal government has recently established a goal to eliminate elevated blood lead levels of 10 ug/dL or higher in children less than 72 months of age by 2010.