In the past two years most people have spent more time at home shielding from possible exposure to a deadly virus. We assume we are safer at home – but what if our homes are not as safe as we think?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that over 5 million homes across the country expose families to high levels of lead, which can permanently affect our brains, especially children. Nationally, one in five children have elevated blood lead levels. Children living in Connecticut are particularly vulnerable, in part because 70% of homes in Connecticut were built prior to the 1978 ban on lead paint. And due to the pandemic, children have spent more time at home than ever before, so clinicians and educators fear an imminent surge in lead toxicity.
According to the CDC, no amount of lead in the blood is safe. Exposure to lead can result in hearing and speech problems, lower IQ, attentional impairments, learning disabilities, and social and emotional dysfunction. Over time, these impairments result in higher rates of truancy, school suspension, and delinquencies. Thus, lead exposure in children can be undeniably devastating. The CDC recently lowered the identification level to 3.5µg/dL, a level meant to identify the 2.5% of children most affected by lead exposure.
The good news is that lead toxicity is entirely preventable. Certain regulations, such as the 1978 lead paint ban and phasing out of leaded gas over the last three decades have greatly reduced lead toxicity rates. One of the most common remaining methods of lead exposure is in homes, through infant consumption of lead-based paint chips or exposure to inhalation of dust contaminated with lead. The 2015 Connecticut Lead Surveillance Report found that over 2,000 children in Connecticut had lead levels above 5 μg/dL. So, while legislation to date has been helpful, it is far from sufficient.
Environmental investigations are recommended by the CDC for every child with a blood lead over 3.5 depending on local regulations. So far, Connecticut’s leaders have not followed CDC’s guidelines regarding lead.
Currently, Connecticut state law only requires the local health departments to inspect a home if the child’s lead level is 15 μg/dL or above in two tests over three months or 20 μg/dL or more in a single test. In other words, our children have accumulated three to four times the recommended threshold for action on lead before the state mandates home inspection. In 2015, of the 2,156 children in Connecticut with blood lead over 5, only 135 home inspections were performed. Thousands of children – in our neighborhoods, in our schools, and even in our own homes – may currently be exposed to levels of lead considered unsafe by the CDC.
More needs to be done. This is not just a medical matter, but an ethical imperative. Gov. Ned Lamont’s proposed bill H.B. 5045, which would gradually decrease the current lead abatement levels from 15-20 μg/dL to 3.5 μg/dL by Jan. 1, 2025 and amend the Medicaid state plan to add services needed to identify and address childhood elevated blood levels, is a promising solution.
Lamont has proposed that $70 million of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding go to local health departments to address lead abatement throughout the state – a proposal that some have criticized as financially frivolous and unnecessary. While an understandable concern, we believe that this critique is myopic in its understanding of the long-term impacts of lead toxicity. Nationally, the cost of childhood lead exposure is estimated to be $50 billion a year, driven by its permanent symptoms which often require frequent medical treatment and longitudinal special education and social disability services.
When considering all these factors, economists estimate that every $1 put toward mitigating lead exposure in children would benefit society anywhere from $17 to $221. Put differently, not passing H.B. 5045 could result in Connecticut losing millions over the coming years.
To protect our children, join us in supporting this legislation. Call your local state representative and tell them how important it is to you, and to Connecticut, to get this bill passed. And you might even suggest that it doesn’t go as far as it could – it could require that homes where children have been poisoned be identified so that families with young children are notified of the risk before moving in.
After all, we should not have to use children’s bodies to determine whether a home is dangerous. While there’s still much to be done, H.B. 5045 is certainly a step in the right direction.
Shashwat Kala and Madisen Swallow are students at the Yale School of Medicine. Dr. Ada Fenick is an Associate Professor of Pediatrics and a fellow of the Op-Ed Project.