In a stunning improvement in children’s health, far fewer kids have high lead levels than 20 years ago, government research shows—a testament to aggressive efforts to get lead out of paint, water and soil.
Lead can interfere with developing nervous systems and cause permanent problems with learning, memory and behavior. Children in poor neighborhoods have generally been more at risk because they tend to live in older housing and in industrial areas.
Federal researchers found that just 1.4% of young children had elevated lead levels in their blood in 2004, the latest data available. That compares with almost 9% in 1988.
Lead is seriously bad stuff, even in tiny quantities—a fact that was known as early as the 1920s, and arguably for millenia. Yet somehow, we considered it a good idea to add lead to gasoline, paint, and whatnot for generations. (See more on the history of lead here.) For kids, the results were a disaster. Researchers have tied elevated blood lead levels to lower IQ and SAT scores and higher crime rates, among other ills.
The slow and steady progress in removing lead from gasoline, homes—and our kids’ bodies—is a heartening success story. But it’s also a testament to how misguided our priorities were for so long. If we’d listened to what health researchers were telling us back in the 1920s, we would have saved ourselves a lot of time, money, and heartache. It makes one wonder what other ways that our public policy still fails to put health and safety first.