For 20 years, the official “level of concern” for lead poisoning was 10 micrograms per deciliter of blood. Recently, however, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) made a dramatic change, cutting the “level of concern” in half, down to 5 micrograms per deciliter (mcg/dL) of blood.
“Level of concern” means the level of lead in the blood when doctors and parents need to take steps to prevent further ingestion of lead by a child. But for all practical purposes and for emotional reasons, especially for parents, it is the official threshold defining “lead poisoning” for children under the age of six.
Lowering the official threshold to 5 mcg/dL means that suddenly five times as many children will be considered at risk of lead poisoning, if not actually “poisoned.” That’s hundreds of thousands of new poisonings across the country. Instantly, a new public health crisis has been created.
Turning lead into gold
Last year Congress slashed the CDC lead program budget by 93 percent, from $28 million to $2 million, a huge 93% drop. It surely is no coincidence that lowering the level of concern comes soon after Congress acted. Lowering the level of concern makes a sudden new need for lead-related jobs and the funding to support them. It’s an effort to save a bundle of lead-related jobs at the CDC and across the country. As we might say, the new threshold turns lead into gold.
And landlords can expect demands for more lead abatement of apartments and lawsuits against them.
Such a regulatory change is not uncommon in government bureaucracies. It’s called “mission creep,” expanding the mission of an agency when it has nearly solved its original problem.
Besides saving the CDC’s own lead-related staff, the new lowered threshold may preserve some 34,000 jobs for government regulators and their staffs across the country, jobs that might otherwise get cut if lead poisoning is perceived to be nearly extinct (which it is).
Numerous government and nonprofit agencies specialize entirely or in part in helping to remedy lead poisoning: subsidized loan agencies, information agencies, community development agencies, hospital and clinical programs and more. These agencies stand to gain.
Then there are private deleading companies all across the country whose livelihood is based on lead poisoning. And of course, there are lawyers and “expert” witnesses who stand to get paid handsome amounts for prosecuting or defending lead poisoning cases. A rash of new lead poisoning cases will save these jobs too.
In other words, a whole industry based on the prevalence of lead poisoning would be protected by the new lower threshold.
What is low-level lead?
The problem for the lead industry is that the elimination of lead in gasoline in the 1970s resulted in a huge drop in blood lead levels among all Americans of whatever age. All symptoms of lead poisoning disappeared. It seemed there was no longer a public health crisis, and indeed, officials declared the elimination of lead in gasoline and the subsequent drop in lead levels to be a “public health victory.”
To preserve the industry that had successfully “eliminated” lead poisoning, researchers went out hunting for evidence of damage to children’s bodies at very low levels of lead, below 25 mcg/dL. And following in the trail of this research, the CDC adopted the position that no amount of lead is acceptable. That surely is a formula for a long-term bureaucracy and industry based based on stopping low levels of lead in the blood.
Despite the CDC’s opinion, there is considerable question as to whether there is any harm at all to children from having low levels of lead. And what, by the way, is low-level lead?
At 60 mcg/dL, the effects of lead poisoning can be physically detected. From 25 to 50 mcg/dL, lead is not considered a threat to adults, but may be a threat to children. Much research, however, has been done on children in the range of 25 to 50 mcg/dL and almost no effects can be detected.
In the 1970s, the official level of concern (not actual poisoning) was 40 mcg/dL. Since the 1970s, this official level of concern has dropped steadily down to 25, 20, 15 and 10 mcg/dL. Obviously, there is not a clear medical or physiological basis for this declining level of concern.
At 25 mcg/dL, no physiological effects can be found, and doctors and scientists have been searching hard for other, more psychological effects like poor attention span, over-activity, aggressiveness, learning disabilities and lower IQ.
No good evidence
The American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), an organization of doctors and scientists that evaluates scientific and medical claims made in the news, reports that of all the studies done at these blood levels, it accepts only one as valid. That one study finds “an association” between lead and IQ, but only at “moderate to high blood lead levels, typically in excess of 30 to 40 micrograms per deciliter.” The drop in IQ is only 1 or 2 points. Even this study is questionable according to ACSH.
How often does this 30 to 40 mcg/ dL blood lead level happen? Not very often. By 1990, according to a public policy research institute, the average blood lead level of all Americans – young, old, rich, poor, and all ethnicities – had fallen to 3 mcg/dL. According to the EPA, among children five years old and under (the group everyone is concerned about), average blood lead levels dropped from 16.5 mcg/dL between 1976 and 1980 to 3.6 mcg/dL between 1992 and 1994, a decline of 78 percent. That 3.6 mcg/dL is a really low level of lead.
The ACSH report finds no good evidence for any other adverse health effects at this moderately high level. One principal researcher, the University of Pittsburgh’s Herbert Needleman, was investigated for falsifying his statistics to reach the conclusion that low-level lead is dangerous – and was never exonerated.
So when you read a news article that claims that children with low levels of lead suffer from “central nervous system damage or slowed growth,” as the U.S. Department of Environmental Protection has said or that they suffer from “behavior disorders” or other psychological characteristics, remember that it’s junk science. In fact, it’s not even science. There are no studies to support it. It’s the mantra of the lead industry, one person copying what another person said.