For the past 17 years Baltimore has led the state in the number of children with high lead levels in their blood, a health issue that can affect learning and other skills, two public health experts say.
A staggering 60 percent of Maryland children who have lived in Baltimore since 1998 have new blood lead levels that are twice as high as what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends, according to Baltimore public health experts.
Approximately 500,000 U.S. children ages 1-5 have blood lead levels above 5 micrograms per deciliter (µg/dL), the reference level the CDC recommends public health actions begin, according to the CDC. There are no safe blood lead levels for children.
Did you know:
“µg” means “millionths” of a gram. A nickel weighs about 5 grams. “dL” is similar to a tenth of a quart of water, which is 3.4 ounces.
A grain of sand weighs about 250 µg. Therefore, 5 µg/dL is like one-tenth of a grain of sand dissolved in 3.4 ounces.
Pat McLaine, assistant professor and director of community/public health nursing specialty at the University of Maryland School of Nursing, and Ana Navas-Acien, associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, provided an overview of the seriousness of lead paint poisoning in Baltimore at an Opportunity Collaborative meeting May 26 at the Greater Baltimore Committee.
The Collaborative, staffed and coordinated by the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, is a consortium of more than 25 local and state government, nonprofit and university partners, including the GBC. The Collaborative began a three-year project in 2012 to link the region’s housing, workforce development and transportation plans with a specific focus on reducing economic disparities. The effort is funded by a $3.5 million Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
The collaborative’s Baltimore Regional Plan for Sustainable Development is expected to be released on June 8. The plan aims to help the Baltimore region coordinate investments in housing, transportation and workforce development.
Whether the plan addresses the lead paint issue or not, the two researchers say it’s a compelling public health issue that should be addressed. This year thousands of children have been diagnosed as having high blood lead levels.
In the first five months of 2015, more than 13,300 Baltimore children ages 18 and younger have been found to have a blood lead level of 10 micrograms per deciliter or higher, twice what the CDC recommends, McLaine said.
The high lead levels among Baltimore’s youths are tied to a lower IQ, McLaine said.
Additional cognitive effects of lead poisoning in children include decreases in visual-spatial skills, cognitive flexibility and working memory, poor school performance and increased aggression, McLaine said. Such effects can last for years.
“Early deficits may persist,” McLaine said.
McLaine also highlighted the effects of lead paint poisoning and reading readiness upon entering kindergarten.
Compared to students with a blood lead level of 0-4 micrograms per deciliter, reading readiness scores were 4.5 points lower if the blood lead level was 5-9 micrograms per deciliter and 10.1 points lower with a blood lead level of more than 10 micrograms per deciliter, McLaine said. As for students who paid for their lunch, scores were 4.2 points lower for low-income students eligible for reduced price lunch and 10.3 points lower for students eligible for free lunch.
“That’s the magnitude of the problem,” McLaine said.
Navas-Acien noted that today lead levels are 10 times higher than they were in the 17th century.
“We’ve put a lot of lead into the environment,” she said, noting that it is also in the ground, which may impact urban gardens.
Education about lead paint poisoning, particularly among parents, is crucial, as is the need to test children for it, according to public health experts.
Ways to prevent exposure to lead paint include improving both Baltimore and Maryland’s older housing stock, creating smoke-free environments and reducing air pollution, Navas-Acien said.