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President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan includes a proposal to upgrade the U.S. drinking water distribution system by removing and replacing dangerous lead pipes. As a geochemist and environmental health researcher who has studied the heartbreaking impacts of lead poisoning in children for decades, I am happy to see due attention paid to this silent killer, which disproportionately affects poor communities of color.
This effort would affect an estimated 6 million to 10 million homes, along with 400,000 schools and child care facilities. I see it as one of the nation’s best chances to finally get the lead out of the nation’s drinking water, and its children.
Lead poisoning does permanent damage
Lead poisoning is a major public health problem, because lead has permanent impacts on the brain, particularly in children. Young brains are still actively forming the amazing network of neurons that comprise their hardware.
Neurons are designed to use calcium, the most abundant mineral in the human body, as a transmitter to rapidly pass signals. Lead is able to penetrate the brain because lead molecules look a lot like calcium molecules. If lead is present in a child’s body, it can impair neuron development and cause permanent neural damage.
Children with lead poisoning have lower IQs, poor memory recall, high rates of attention deficit disorder and low impulse control. They tend to perform poorly at school, which reduces their earning potential as adults. They also face increased risk of kidney disease, stroke and hypertension as they age. Research has found strong connections between lead poisoning and incarceration for violent crimes.
The prevalence of childhood lead poisoning has declined significantly in the U.S. over the past 50 years. That’s largely due to the elimination of leaded gasoline in the 1980s and the banning of most lead-based paints.
In the 1970s, nearly 90% of children in the U.S. ages 1 to 5 had blood lead levels above 10 micrograms per deciliter of blood, which then was the “level of concern” under federal health guidelines. Today, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials, roughly 2% of U.S. children have elevated blood lead levels.
This decline is a public health success story – but researchers estimate that about 500,000 U.S. children still have elevated blood lead levels. In 2012 the CDC adopted a new blood lead “reference value” of 5 micrograms per deciliter or above, which identifies children in the highest 2.5% of those tested for lead in their blood.
Health experts widely agree that there is no known “safe” blood lead concentration. And as long as lead water pipes remain in service, children and families are vulnerable.