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Feds consider lowering threshold for lead exposure in kids

Joseph Cammareri, head custodian at Howard B. Mattlin

Joseph Cammareri, head custodian at Howard B. Mattlin Middle School in Plainview, runs the water at one of the school's drinking fountains on Thursday, June 16, 2016. Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

Federal health officials are considering a 30 percent reduction in the threshold for what are considered elevated lead levels in children, a move that could increase the number of youngsters treated for evidence of the heavy metal in their blood, according to news reports.

For nearly five years, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — the agency that establishes standards on lead exposure — has considered 5 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood to be high for children age 6 and younger. But according to reports Monday the CDC will consider dropping that level to 3.5 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood when it meets later this month.

The agency, which was closed for the holiday Monday, is scheduled to consider the issue at its Jan. 17 meeting.

CDC officials adjust the threshold for lead periodically. The last time it was lowered was 2012. The agency has a $17 million budget to assist states with lead safety programs, according to data on its website. Federal health officials estimate 500,000 children nationwide have blood lead levels at or above the current threshold.

About 20 percent of Long Island school districts that reported testing for lead in drinking fountains last year revealed the heavy metal was at elevated levels, according to a Newsday/News 12 Long Island survey. The finding caused a shutdown of fountains and forced fixture replacements.

For youngsters who have been exposed to elevated levels of lead, studies have reported a significant decline in IQ. Researchers also say the metal impairs healthy brain and central nervous system development. But while no level of lead in the blood is safe, Dr. Andrew Adesman of Cohen Childrens Medical Center in New Hyde Park, questions whether lowering the threshold by 30 percent is in the best interest of public health.

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“Preventing kids from being exposed to lead is a good thing, everybody is in favor of it,” said Adesman, chief of developmental and behavioral pediatrics.

But it is possible, Adesman said, that limited federal resources could be shifted away from regions of the country where environmental lead remains a huge problem.

“There is a significant number of kids with higher lead levels in the industrial Midwest and in mining towns,” Adesman said. “...With finite resources there can be unintended consequences.”

Adesman also worries about the sensitivity of various tests to measure lead in the blood. Some produce false readings.

Other medical experts are also concerned about the effectiveness of the diagnostics.

“It only makes sense to lower the threshold level for detection, since no exposure to lead is considered safe,” said Dr. Robert Glatter, a specialist in emergency medicine at Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan. “Health care professionals will unfortunately have to deal with false positives and false negatives.

“Lead poisoning can be devastating to children and families by not only causing learning disabilities and cognitive impairment, but can also underlie chronic abdominal pain and constipation,” Glatter said. “Many of these children make frequent visits to emergency departments, and no diagnosis is often rendered.”

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