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NM EPHT Health Effects: Childhood Lead Poisoning

Childhood lead poisoning – Why are we concerned with lead?

In the United States the highest rates of elevated blood lead levels are found among children in the 1-5 year old age group. About 310,000 U.S. children ages 1-5 still have blood lead levels greater than 10 micrograms (µg) of lead per deciliter (dL) of blood (µg/dL), the level at which CDC recommends public health actions be initiated. In New Mexico 236 children age 6 and younger were found to have elevated blood lead levels out of 50,463 children tested from 2003–2009. Currently in New Mexico the groups with high potential for risk include recent immigrants and children living in older housing, which includes 57 percent of housing units in the state.

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Childhood Lead Poisoning and the Environment – What is lead?

Lead is a heavy, bluish-grey metal that occurs naturally in the Earth’s crust. Much of environmental lead comes from human activities such as mining, manufacturing, and burning fossil fuels. Lead was once used in paints, gasoline, and some vinyl products, such as mini-blinds. It is still used in the production of batteries, ammunition, metal products such as solder and pipes, and devices to shield X-rays.

Lead exposure in children remains a major health concern. The main source of childhood lead poisoning is from lead-based paint and lead-containing dust in older homes. Many homes built before 1978 have peeling or chipping lead-based paint and a high level of lead-containing house dust. Soil around a home can also become contaminated with lead from deteriorating exterior paint or other sources such as past use of leaded gas in cars. Young children playing in yards can ingest or inhale lead dust from the soil.

Testing for Childhood Blood Lead Poisoning (747.2 KB)

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Why is lead an environmental public health issue?

People may be exposed to lead by breathing or swallowing lead present in their environment. Once lead enters the body, it can become a health hazard. Past public health action includes policies and actions such as lead from paints, ceramic products, caulking, and pipe solder being reduced in the U.S. due to health concerns. In 1978, lead-based paints were banned from use in homes. Lead has also been removed from gasoline. However, lead still can be found in the environment and people, especially young children are still being exposed, requiring further public health action and interventions.

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What do we know about the health effects of lead?

Lead poisoning can negatively affect almost every organ and system in the body. The main target of lead toxicity is the nervous system. The health effects from exposure to lead are the same whether it enters the body through breathing or swallowing. Exposure to lead can happen from breathing air or dust, drinking contaminated water or eating contaminated foods.

Lead poisoning can cause learning disabilities, behavioral problems, and, at very high levels, seizures, coma, and even death. Exposure to lead is especially dangerous for young and unborn children. Unborn children can be exposed to lead through their mothers because lead is known to cross the placenta and enter the fetus. Harmful effects include premature births, low birth-weight infants, decreased mental ability in the baby, and learning difficulties in young children. Some of these effects may persist beyond childhood. Lead poisoning often happens with no obvious signs and symptoms so it often goes unrecognized.

A blood lead test is available to measure the amount of lead in your or your child’s blood and to determine the amount of your recent exposure to lead. Blood tests are commonly used to screen children for lead poisoning. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) considers a blood lead level (BLL) of 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood (µg/dL) or greater to be elevated and to require individualized case management. However, no safe level of lead exposure has been identified.

Children are more vulnerable to lead poisoning than adults and children from all social and economic levels can be affected. The first six years, particularly the first three years of life, is the time when the human brain grows the fastest, and when the critical connections in the brain and nervous system that control thought, learning, hearing, movement, behavior, and emotions are formed. The normal behaviors of children at this age, such as crawling, exploring, teething, and putting objects in their mouth, put them into contact with any lead that is present in their environment. Also, children can be exposed to lead from eating lead-based paint chips or playing in contaminated soil.

Childhood lead poisoning is preventable. The key to preventing lead poisoning in children is to stop them from coming into contact with lead. Children who have been poisoned by lead must also be monitored or tracked and treated. By tracking children with lead poisoning and sources of lead, we can:

  • Identify children at risk and then focus testing and resources.
  • Make case management services available to each child with lead poisoning.
  • Monitor progress toward eliminating childhood lead poisoning.
  • Identify and monitor trends in sources of lead that children can come in contact with.
  • Remove and reduce sources of lead.
  • Develop and evaluate lead poisoning prevention actions or interventions and programs.

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Childhood lead poisoning indicator available on the New Mexico Tracking Network

  • Blood Lead Levels by Birth Cohort and by County

This indicator uses data collected by the New Mexico Lead Poisoning Surveillance and Prevention Program. It provides information about blood lead testing and blood lead levels among children born in the same year, known as a birth cohort. The number of children with blood lead levels above 10 µg/dL cannot be interpreted as prevalence or incidence for the population because the children tested are not representative of the entire population of children in New Mexico. The state requires all children enrolled in Medicaid be tested (universal testing) for lead exposure.

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