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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Silent Epidemic - Part One

Air Date: Week of

Even tiny amounts of lead can have devastating effects on the brains of young children, and there is evidence that millions of American children have been poisoned. While there are no obvious physical symptoms of low-level lead poisoning, research shows these youngsters have much higher rates of learning disabilities, are far more likely to drop out of school, and are more prone to get into trouble with the law. In the first of our series, Deirdre Kennedy reports on some of the latest research and how parents can help protect their children.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
More than 20 years ago the United States banned the use of the metal lead in gasoline and household paint. While overall exposure to lead in this country does seem to be dropping, there is still plenty of lead dust on the ground from its previous use in fuels and paints. And many homes still have significant amounts of lead pipes and paint inside. Adults are relatively immune to small exposures. But even minute amounts of lead can have devastating effects on the brains of young children, and there is evidence that millions of American children have been poisoned. There are no obvious symptoms of low-level lead poisoning, but research shows exposed youngsters have much higher rates of learning disabilities, are far more likely to drop out of school, and are more prone to become delinquent. In the first of our series on the silent lead epidemic, Deirdre Kennedy reports on some of the latest research, and how parents can help protect their children.

(News music intro. News announcer: "A government report released today says the nation's playground equipment is too often covered in dangerous lead-based paint...")

KENNEDY: When the Consumer Product Safety Commission reported last year that it found high lead levels in playgrounds across the country, it made news headlines and alarmed many parents.
ANNOUNCER: Researchers came to that conclusion after testing 26 playgrounds. One of those playgrounds is in San Francisco. Rita Williams is in the city tonight with a live report for us.

WILLIAMS: Dennis, parents have so many things to worry about...

KENNEDY: Most people know that children can be exposed to lead paint when they live in dilapidated housing. But investigators found that playgrounds can be just as dangerous. They said even if a child is only exposed to a tiny amount of lead, if the exposure is repeated, it can lead to lead poisoning in a short period of time. Consumer Product Safety Commission spokesperson Ann Brown.

BROWN: A child could have high blood lead levels by ingesting a paint chip about the size of the top of a pencil eraser for 15 to 30 days.

(Traffic in the background. A nail scrapes on metal)

STOERMER: That comes off pretty easily with a fingertip there.

KENNEDY: In San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, Hillary Stoermer chips flecks of paint off a jungle gym where hundreds of tiny little hands have rubbed away the surface paint. She's an industrial hygienist for San Francisco, one of the cities named as a hot spot for playground lead.

(Children laughing and whooping)

STOERMER: Here's where the classic kid picking the paint chip and putting it in their mouth comes into play.

(Playground noises in the background)

KENNEDY: Experts say very small children are more likely to get lead poisoned than older children because they put everything in their mouths.

(Child: "Hey!" Shouts more, unintelligible)

KENNEDY: Lead is sweet, so children tend to keep eating it once they discover it. But Hillary Stoermer says a child doesn't actually have to eat the lead to get it into his system.

STOERMER: The paint deteriorates. It chalks, it flakes off. And it ends up as dust. And they play on it, they get it on their clothes. So here, what you're mostly worried about is the kids actually touching it, getting it on their hands, and then boom, the hands go right in the mouth.

KENNEDY: Children's health advocates say parents can do a lot to protect their children's health just by carrying wet wipes and washing their kids' hands often. They can also ask their local health department to test playgrounds and other public sites for lead. Hillary Stoermer says the flaking paint in this playground doesn't have lead in it. But, she says, just because paint is brand new, that doesn't mean it's lead free. According to the Environmental Defense Fund, there's no limit on the amount of lead used in the industrial paint used on most of the nation's roadways and bridges. And it's deteriorating and releasing a fine lead dust into the atmosphere every day.

(Children yelling, laughing, screaming)

KENNEDY: Playgrounds are just one of the many places where a child can come in contact with lead. The National Lead Task Force estimates that more than half of the homes built before 1978 contain some lead paint. Lead can also be hidden in soil, plumbing, and pottery, and even in some traditional home remedies. Over the past 30 years, standards for lead exposure have been made tougher. Today, a child is considered in danger at just a sixth of the blood lead level that would have prompted concern a generation ago. But nobody really knows at what level lead begins to interfere with children's ability to learn and to adapt t their surroundings.

(Blocks hitting a hard surface)

DIETRICH: Let's see how I made a train. Ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch -- whoooo!

KENNEDY: Behavioral psychologist Ken Dietrich at the University of Cincinnati is testing a 2-year-old girl to see if she's developing normally.

DIETRICH: I like that train. I do.

KENNEDY: As she clumsily stacks blocks on top of each other, she looks like a normal shy toddler. But Dr. Dietrich says to a trained professional, she shows signs of severe lead poisoning.

DIETRICH: She showed very poor motor development. She had shown a decline in her cognitive development. And she also showed poor stability and balance on that day. Now, those sorts of changes in behavior aren't unique to lead. It could have been due to other factors. But her blood lead concentration was later found to be around 140 micrograms per deciliter when I tested her on that day, and we were dealing with a child that was neurobehaviorally symptomatic for lead poisoning.

KENNEDY: Such severe lead poisoning can cause convulsions, coma, and even death. This child was immediately hospitalized and treated with drugs to flush the lead out of her blood. But the effects of lead poisoning are irreversible. It can cause permanent damage to the brain and other organs, which becomes more severe depending on the length of exposure. Even in a rare severe case like this one, Dr. Dietrich says the only symptoms the girl's mother noticed were that she was walking into objects and complaining of a sore tummy. It turns out the child had been eating paint chips inside her home for several months.

BOY: Hysterical. Pedestrian, Mathe -- math --

KENNEDY: In Pittsburgh, a teenage boy reads a vocabulary list as part of a study by lead researcher Dr. Herbert Needleman.

BOY: Almanac --

KENNEDY: Dr. Needleman has been studying the long-term effects of less severe lead poisoning on learning and social skills.

BOY: Instigator --

KENNEDY: He's found that children with moderate blood lead levels are 7 times more likely to drop out of high school. Dr. Needleman is also studying a possible link between lead poisoning and delinquency in teenagers.

NEEDLEMAN: Mothers have observed, I hear regularly in the clinic, that her child was an angel, got lead poison, and now she can't manage him.

KENNEDY: To test his theory, Dr. Needleman x-rayed the bones of 301 12-year-old boys. Lead can be stored in the bones for decades, and can be an indicator of past exposure. Dr. Needleman found out that boys with high bone lead were more likely to have problems getting along in school and at home.

NEEDLEMAN: Children with higher lead in their bone had more attention disorders, had more aggressive behavior, and were more likely to be delinquent. So we think this means that our hunch was right. That lead is related to the amount of delinquency in our society.

KENNEDY: Dr. Needleman believes that once lead gets into the brain it can affect a child's ability to tell right from wrong.

NEEDLEMAN: One of the essential functions of the brain is to mediate between the stimulus and the response. In other words, you see something that you want and the response would be go get it. But the human brain says no, that's not allowed by law or by custom. So that we have to learn to slow down our responses and think about the consequences and lead appears to interfere with that very important function.

KENNEDY: Dr. Needleman's conclusions are still controversial among people who work in the field. And his results have yet to be replicated. Some lead experts say the group he tested was too small, and they question his definition of delinquency.

(Children shouting)

KENNEDY: But whether lead poisoning leads to delinquency or it just makes it harder for children to learn, childhood lead experts agree that it's one more factor that robs children of the opportunity to reach their full potential. Karen Cohen of San Francisco's Lead Poisoning Prevention Program.

COHEN: If you think back on your own school education, we have many people who failed school. But those were just children who failed school. We didn't have any names for it. We didn't have any learning disabilities defined. They just didn't do well in school. Now we're at the era where we have labels for things, and children get diagnosed with different types of learning disabilities. And we know that lead has to be one of the contributing factors to that.

KENNEDY: The only way parents can really know if their children are being exposed to lead is to have them tested. Health experts recommend testing at 12 months and then at 2 years. Many city and county health departments provide free or low-cost blood testing, and they can also help parents track down the source of the lead exposure. For Living on Earth, I'm Deirdre Kennedy in San Francisco.



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