Last week, the CDC released adjusted estimates for the number of U.S. children with lead poisoning. The findings — which incorporated a new, lower threshold for what qualifies as a safe amount of lead in the blood — showed that roughly half a million U.S. children between the ages of one and five have blood lead levels at or above the point for which the CDC “recommends public health interventions.” While public health officials agree that the numbers illustrate the need for more aggressive intervention and prevention initiatives, those efforts are running into a major barrier: congressional cuts to the CDC budget.
Excess lead in the blood causes developmental problems in the brain and kidneys, making young children particularly susceptible to its negative health effects. As such, regulating lead content in products such as paint and gasoline has been a major public health initiative since the early 20th century, with the Clear Air Act of 1970 paving the way for widespread national regulation through the Environmental Protection Agency. In 2008, the EPA strengthened its standards against airborne lead emissions by tightening acceptable rates to thirty times less than the previous level, and the CDC lowered the definition of what constitutes lead poisoning last May.
But as CBS News reports, that heightened scrutiny doesn’t necessarily result in the desired public health outcomes unless there’s sufficient funding for testing and prevention efforts. And Congress almost entirely eliminated that type of funding last year:
Those cuts represent “an abandonment of children,” said David Rosner, a Columbia University public health historian who writes books about lead poisoning.
“We’ve been acting like the problem was solved and this was a thing of the past,” he added. [...]
[It's] likely that many children with lead poisoning have not been diagnosed. In the CDC study, elevated lead levels were discovered for a third of the children only when they were tested by researchers.
“When you look for it, you find it,” Columbia’s Rosner said.
Once lead poisoning is diagnosed, doctors often refer parents to local health departments to get their homes checked out to try to find the source of the problem. But as demand for investigations grows, there’s less money to pay for them. Congress last year cut CDC lead program’s budget from about $29 million to $2 million. That ended CDC grants to local health departments for their programs.
As with most public health concerns associated with harmful substances, those budget cuts — and the excess lead levels — disproportionately affect low-income and minority communities that are more likely to live in older housing which hasn’t undergone proper retro-fitting operations. Detroit has been forced to essentially cut its entire lead safety program.