The Corpus Callosum

Good News About Lead Poisoning?

At first I was happy to see some good news on the Internet, a
refreshing break from the avalanche of bad stuff rolling down every

children have high lead levels

Associated Press / March 2, 2009

CHICAGO – In a stunning improvement in children’s health, far fewer
children have high lead levels than 20 years ago, according to new
government research.

Federal researchers credited the improvement on aggressive efforts to
reduce children’s exposure to lead in old house paint, soil, water, and
other sources.

Lead can interfere with the developing nervous system and cause
permanent problems with learning, memory, and behavior. Children in
poor neighborhoods have generally been more at risk because they tend
to live in older housing and in industrial areas.

Researchers found that just 1.4 percent of young children had elevated
lead levels in their blood in 2004, the latest data available. That
compares with almost 9 percent in 1988.

“It has been a remarkable decline,” said Mary Jean Brown of the Centers
for Disease Control and Prevention, a coauthor of the study. “It’s a
public health success story.”


This is wonderful, no question about it.  Just one thing about it:
the latest data are from 2004.  That is just after the War on
Science led to reversals in progress against lead poisoning.  We
do not yet know if those poilicy changes led to a detectable setback.

Some of you probably remember this.  In 2002, HHS Secretary
removed or rejected several qualified scientists
from the CDC
Advisory Committee on Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention.   They
were replaced by lead industry consultants.

There were additonal instances of interference
with anti-lead efforts

Imagine you’re a scientist tasked with testing children’s
lunchboxes for lead residue. (The very same stuff that led to a mass
recall of Chinese-made toys last year.) In a simulation of the action
of a child handling the lunchbox, you swab one, and discover
unacceptably high concentrations of lead in the resulting sample. Red
flag, right? Raise the alarms and alert the media — a federal ban or
at least a manufacturer’s recall is on its way… right?

Then your supervisor does something peculiar: he asks you what would
happen if you kept swabbing the lunchbox. You report that the amount of
lead residue on each successive swab would eventually drop to zero,
because you would have wiped all the lead off the lunchbox. The
supervisor responds:

“Just keep swiping. And when you’ve swiped it down to zero, take an
average and use that — because then it will be at a safe level.”

If I recall correctly, the Bush Administration also cut recommended
cuts to funding for lead abatement efforts, and changed rules that
required training for contractors who did renovations in pre-1978 homes
(that were more likely to have lead paint). 

The success of the anti-lead campaign is a good example of how it
sometimes makes sense to have centralized government
interventions.  The economic benefits will persist for
decades.  I just hope there wasn’t a little setback.


  1. #1 Heraclides
    March 4, 2009

    It’s good news & good to see someone spreading the news! I’m glad that the “central approach” is more along the lines of what is done in my country. (New Zealand.)

    Loose idle thought while procrastinating from more work (!):

    Naïvely (meaning, this really isn’t my patch!), I’d have thought these results would also be tentatively contrary to hypotheses that lead poisoning was associated with autism. Autism rates remain high despite falling lead levels, etc. (Or maybe I’m just making an idiot myself…)

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