Has Your Child Had a Lead Test Yet?

views updated

Has Your Child Had a Lead Test Yet?


By: U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare

Date: 1970

Source: "Has Your Child Had a Lead Test Yet?" Poster available online at the National Library of Medicine. 〈http://www.nlm.nih.gov/exhibition/visualculture/environmental01.html〉 (accessed December 2, 2005).

About the Author: The Cabinet-level Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) was created in 1953, during the Eisenhower administration. In 1979, the Department of Education Organization Act was signed into law. It created a separate Department of Education, and HEW officially became the Department of Health and Human Services on May 4, 1980. The Department of Health and Human Services is the United States government's principal agency for protecting the health of all Americans and providing essential human services, especially for those who are least able to help themselves.


Lead poisoning in children was first discovered in Australia in the late nineteenth century. In 1904, J. L. Gibson discovered the cause of such poisoning. He traced it to the repeated ingestion of peeling and chipping lead-based paint in old, dilapidated homes by children with pica, an appetite for non-food items. In subsequent years, little effort was made to prevent childhood exposure to lead. No alternative to lead in paint had been discovered and poor and minority children—who were the major victims of such poisoning—attracted comparatively little media and government attention.

The natural concentration of lead in humans is extremely small. Lead has no useful function in the body and damages both children and adults. However, children, especially those under the age of six, are more susceptible to lead poisoning because their bodies are still developing. Children are exposed to lead from many sources—food, water, car emissions, ceramics, cosmetics, dust, soil, and paint. While lead-based paint is the principal high-dose source available to children, these other sources contribute to the total body burden of lead and reduce the margin of safety to a level where only slight exposure to lead in paint may result in health problems.

Lead damages the nervous and renal systems as well as the formation of blood cells. Since lead poisoning first affects blood cells, blood is tested to determine exposure to lead. High levels of lead in the blood can cause a lower IQ, learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder, behavioral problems, stunted growth, impaired hearing, and kidney damage. Damage to the brain and nervous system from lead poisoning is irreversible.

The replacement of lead by titanium oxide in the 1940s led many Americans to mistakenly believe that lead poisoning was a problem of the past. They did not realize that the hazardous paint still remained in millions of older homes. Adding to the danger, lead poisoning appears gradually and can easily be overlooked. In the 1960s, a widespread effort at public education by government agencies and citizens' groups began to screen children for lead exposure.



See primary source image.


The efforts by public and private agencies to educate the public about lead poisoning proved to be successful. The numbers of children found with lead in their blood resulted in a general realization that lead poisoning was still taking a high toll on children. In 1970, the Surgeon General shifted the focus from identification and treatment of overt lead poisoning to prevention through mass screening and early identification of children with high levels of lead absorption.

Congressional hearings led to passage of the 1971 Lead-Based Paint Poisoning Prevention Act. Among other things, the act authorized federal financial assistance to help communities develop and carry out screening and treatment programs as well as programs to eliminate the cause of lead-based paint poisoning. It funded the Childhood Lead-Based Paint Poisoning Prevention Program, which conducted mass screenings.

Scientists assumed that only pre-World War II (1941–1945) homes contained hazardous levels of lead. The mass screenings revealed that even houses constructed in the 1960s contained lead-based paint. Lead poisoning also occurred in children living in homes under renovation and remodeling.

Cases of lead poisoning have declined steadily in the U.S., since the 1978 federal ban on lead-based paint in housing. Yet, other sources of lead exposure remain. In 2005, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) asked companies engaged in home renovation and remodeling to adopt protective measures voluntarily. Under a 1992 law, the EPA was to have issued new regulations covering such activities as the tearing out of ceilings, walls, and other fixtures covered with lead-based paint. However, the regulations were never issued. The EPA issued the voluntary measures in the belief that they would be less expensive for businesses to implement. It believed, in 2005, that about 1.4 million children under the age of seven in 4.9 million households were at risk of lead exposure due to unsafe repair and renovation work.



Cherry, Flora Finch, ed. Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention and Control: A Public Health Approach to an Environmental Disease. New Orleans: Maternal and Child Health Section, Office of Health Services and Environmental Quality, Department of Health and Human Resources, 1981.

Web sites

National Center for Environmental Health, Centers for Disease Control. "Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program." 〈http://www.cdc.gov/nceh/lead/lead.htm〉 (accessed December 2, 2005).

About this article

Has Your Child Had a Lead Test Yet?

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article