Physicians and public health officials have been trying in recent weeks to map out a strategy for fighting and defeating lead poisoning within the next 20 years. It is a critical effort because lead poisoning is regarded as the most serious environmental threat faced by America's youngest citizens.

Lead, which can be found in older houses, can stunt a child's intellectual, behavioral and physical development. In fact, many physicians believe that any exposure to lead causes permanent damage - and the younger the child, the greater the risk.Those under the age of 7 are considered the greatest risk group because their nervous systems are still developing. They're also more likely to eat paint chips or dirt than older children.

It does not take much exposure for a child to reach what the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta call a dangerous level of lead in the blood. The CDC estimates 3 million U.S. children have reached that danger zone.

Moreover, it is an insidious process. By the time a child exhibits any symptoms, such as headaches, a significant amount of brain damage has already occurred.

The other problem is that many parents don't realize that breaking down walls in old houses can generate lead contaminated dust or chips of old lead paint. And some physicians don't realize they should be routinely screening blood.

The biggest culprit is paint in some 57 million houses built before 1978, when the government banned lead from household paint. But lead is also present in polluted soil and air and in some drinking water.

It would be easy to assume that Utah has no reason for concern over this problem, but Utah has old houses, too. Moreover, Utah has smelters, and mine tailings have proved to be hazardous to health.

In 1991, residents in West Jordan near the 11-mile Bingham Creek discovered that lead mine tailings had contaminated the area with levels as high as 30,500 parts per million. Anything higher than 500 ppm is considered unacceptable. The result was a quick cleanup paid by Kennecott Corp. Approximately 72,000 cubic yards of soil in and around homes in the neighborhood were removed.

A major problem still remains in cleaning up the mostly dry creek bed.

Another threat may come from leaded gasoline, which is declining in general use but is still used for limited purposes in many parts of the state.

People who live in close proximity to highways and grow gardens within easy access to highway pollution may unwittingly be ingesting particles of lead.

Adults risk damage from exposure, too, but they absorb only 10 percent of the lead they ingest, while children tend to absorb as much as 50 percent.

Currently, only 28 states and the District of Columbia require lead testing. This is a problem whose time has come. The CDC is acting wisely in drawing up a long-term strategy to educate and eliminate as many sources of lead as possible.

Utah should be sensitive to this need and pass legislation that requires lead testing.