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Highest blood lead levels seen in children living in poverty, study finds

The risk for elevated levels of lead exposure is highest among children who live in poverty, a new study has found. Photo by Patrice Audet/Pixabay
The risk for elevated levels of lead exposure is highest among children who live in poverty, a new study has found. Photo by Patrice Audet/Pixabay

Sept. 27 (UPI) -- Children living in poverty are more likely to have high levels of lead in their blood than those of other socioeconomic backgrounds, a study published Monday by JAMA Pediatrics found.

Young people age 6 and younger who live in communities with large numbers of people at or below the national poverty line were nearly twice as likely to have detectable levels of lead in their blood than those living in areas of higher economic status, the data showed.

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Their risk for elevated blood lead level also was twice as high, the researchers said.

"Children living at or below the poverty line in older housing or in communities with high concentrations of poverty are at the greatest risk of the toxic effects from lead," researchers from Boston Children's Hospital wrote.

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Historically, lead was used in construction, pipes, paint, gasoline and other products, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians.

Detectable levels have been found in older homes, typically in household dust, as well as in the surrounding soil, research suggests.

To eliminate the effect of lead exposure on all children's health, the United States must focus efforts to prevent children from being exposed to lead, beginning in areas where risk is highest," they said.

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The analysis of blood lead level data for more than 1.1 million children age 6 and younger in the United States found that more than 50% had detectable levels of lead in their blood and about 2% had elevated levels, according to the researchers.

Any detectable lead in blood is considered abnormal and is potentially harmful, particularly in young children, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

There is no "safe" level of lead exposure, and increased blood lead levels in young children have been linked with higher rates of intellectual impairment and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD.

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This findings of this study are based on analysis of blood lead levels in 1.14 million children age 6 and younger who lived in all 50 U.S. states and Washington, D.C., between Oct. 1, 2018, and Feb. 29, 2020.

About 51% of the children tested had detectable blood lead levels and 2% had "elevated" levels, based on guidelines established by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Children covered by public health insurance -- Medicaid or Medicare -- were twice as likely to have detectable lead levels and 8% more likely to have elevated levels, the data showed.

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Those living in high-poverty areas were 89% more likely to have detectable blood lead levels and 99% more likely to have elevated lead levels.

"There has been significant progress in reducing lead exposure throughout the country," the researchers wrote.

"This study demonstrates, however, that there are still substantial individual- and community-level disparities that have important implications for addressing childhood lead exposure," they said.

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