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Guest opinion: Lead poisoning still threatens Utah's children

FILE - In this March 21, 2016, file photo, the Flint Water Plant water tower is seen in Flint, Mich. A federal watchdog is calling on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to strengthen its oversight of state drinking water systems in the wake of the l
FILE - In this March 21, 2016, file photo, the Flint Water Plant water tower is seen in Flint, Mich. A federal watchdog is calling on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to strengthen its oversight of state drinking water systems in the wake of the lead crisis in Flint, Michigan.
Carlos Osorio, AP

Oct. 22-28 is National Lead Poisoning Prevention Week. Today we know there is no safe level of lead in the body. Although the risk of lead poisoning has decreased significantly since the 1970s, when the Environmental Protection Agency banned the use of lead in paint and slowly phased out the use of lead in gasoline, the Flint, Michigan, water crisis has reminded us that lead is still a threat.

Not only did the lead-tainted drinking water triple the number of children with lead poisoning, leaving them with an uncertain future, a new study shows a 12 percent decrease in Flint’s fertility rate and a 58 percent increase in fetal death during the time Flint River water was used. If the risk to children and pregnant women is not alarming enough, a recent study in The Lancet shows that low-level lead poisoning in U.S. adults is likely a significant cause of cardiovascular disease and death. This risk is about 10 times higher than previously believed and may contribute to 400,000 U.S. deaths a year.

Why is it still important to screen and test for lead exposure? In Utah, the most current data show that 2.1 percent of our estimated 260,000 children ages 5 years and younger have an elevated blood lead level. This translates to an estimated 5,500 preschool age children at risk for lowered IQ scores, ADHD, behavior and learning disorders as well as hearing loss and kidney disease. Lead poisoning usually goes unrecognized except at high levels, it is cumulative and it affects nearly every organ system. Lead can cross the placenta and affect a baby’s health before it is born. Lead exposure can come through air, food, water, dust and soil.

Peeling and dust from lead-based paint in buildings built before 1978 is still the major source of lead poisoning in the U.S. Other risks include living near a mining, refinery or smelting facility, being a refugee or immigrant, using drinking water from old pipes or having a hobby that includes working with lead such as fishing or shooting. Lead stays permanently in the soil and is present in air pollution. The only way to know if a child has been exposed is by a blood test.

Two years ago, our state formed a Utah Lead Coalition to increase blood lead testing, data gathering and community education on the harms of lead exposure. This coalition is comprised of more than 20 state and private partners. We have obtained three grants to enhance our efforts. In August 2017, we were able to change our state’s previous definition of elevated blood lead from 10µg/dL to comply with the CDC’s recommended standard of ≥5µg/dL. This means that the number of Utah children with lead poisoning will increase.

Our state currently does not require blood lead testing of all children, and the data show that only 3 percent of children are being tested and reported. Lead poisoning is preventable. Make sure your health care provider is screening and testing your child for lead exposure and poisoning.