01/12/2012 10:41 am ET Updated Mar 13, 2012

The Urgent Need to Change the CDC's Definition of 'Safe' Blood Lead Levels

Recently, a federal advisory committee announced its recommendation that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) change its outdated threshold for the diagnosis of "lead poisoning" in children. The standard has not been revisited in two decades, and it's about time.

Currently, the CDC will not classify an individual as having a dangerous blood lead level unless he has at least 10 micromoles of lead per deciliter -- more than three times the level that causes decreased brain function in children. As a result, most government health agencies will not intervene until a child is severely poisoned, often with levels as high as 30 and has severe irreversible brain damage. Thus, it would be welcome news if the CDC changes its standards

The primary culprit of lead poisoning is deteriorating paint in housing. Though federal, state and local governments were aware that exposure to lead was directly damaging to children as early as the 1930s, legal bans on the manufacture of lead paint were not passed until 1978. Vast numbers of America's inner-city children live in pre-World War II housing with limited money available for housing maintenance.

Multiple studies in leading medical journals reveal that blood lead levels in children as low as 3 micrograms per deciliter can cause serious developmental disabilities and dramatically lowered IQs. Additionally, numerous studies, some dating as far back as 1979, show a strong link between anti-social and impulsive violent behavior in those with childhood lead poisoning. On top of this, lead in the bloodstream causes damage to kidneys and other organs.

In 1998, Dr. Herbert Needleman compared a group of Pennsylvania children in the juvenile justice system against those with no criminal behavior. He found that the convicted children had lead levels 10 to 11 times higher than their non-offending counterparts. In the first longitudinal study of the issue, Fordham Law Professor Deborah Denno weighed more than 3,000 factors to see what correlated with incarceration and criminality. She discovered that an elevated lead level in blood was the single highest predictor of school behavioral problems and the third highest predictor of juvenile crime.

In California, even with the recent passage of SB 460 that empowers government agencies involved to enforce lead safe practices in housing and construction, state and local government has been slow to protect our children. In response, St. John's Well Child and Family Center (and a coalition of nonprofit organizations including Strategic Actions for a Just Economy and Esperanza Community Housing Corporation), supported by a $1 million grant from The Everychild Foundation, has created the innovative pilot demonstration project, Healthy Homes Healthy Kids, to dramatically reduce lead exposure in 4,000 children in South Los Angeles. The program, spearheaded by St. John's renowned and innovative Executive Director, Jim Mangia, provides staff to help safely mitigate lead hazards in dwelling spaces of children and, if needed, facilitate legal advocacy. St. John's developed this program after discovering that a whopping 54% of its pediatric patients had at least 3 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood, enough to cause irreversible brain damage.

If the CDC threshold is changed, municipal laws requiring landlords to provide "safe" living conditions for children will protect a far greater population as many of these laws base their definition of "safe" on the CDC standard. Medicaid, also, bases its definition upon the CDC standard before treatment and mitigation are provided.

The public must demand that government take its lead from such foundation-supported, community-based strategies such as St. John's, and that the CDC revise its acceptable standard for blood lead levels. Otherwise, our nation, and especially our urban communities, will continue to experience the tragic repercussions of preventable and permanent brain damage to its children.