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Lead poison toll revised upward: 1 in 38 young kids

More than half a million U.S. children are now believed to have lead poisoning, twice the previous high estimate, health officials reported yesterday.

The government lowered the threshold for lead poisoning last year, so now more children under 6 are considered at risk.

Too much lead can harm developing brains and can mean a lower IQ. Lead poisoning used to be a much larger concern in the United States, but has declined significantly as lead was removed from paint and gasoline and other sources.

The new number translates to about 1 in 38 young children. That suggests a need for more testing and preventive measures, some experts said, but budget cuts last year eliminated federal grants for such programs.

Those cuts represent "an abandonment of children," said David Rosner, a Columbia University public health historian who writes about lead poisoning. "We've been acting like the problem was solved and this was a thing of the past."

Lead can harm a child's brain, kidneys and other organs. High levels in the blood can cause coma, convulsions and death. Lower levels can reduce intelligence, impair hearing and behavior, and cause other problems.

Most cases of lead poisoning are handled by tracking and removing the lead source, and monitoring the children to make sure lead levels stay down.

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Often, children who get lead poisoning live in old homes that are dilapidated or under renovation. They pick up paint chips or dust and put it in their mouths. Children have also picked up lead poisoning from soil contaminated by old leaded gasoline, from dust tracked in from industrial worksites or from tainted drinking water.

After lowering the standard, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention looked at old blood tests from 1,653 children under 6 to determine how many would have lead poisoning under the new definition.

About 2.6 percent of them had blood lead levels higher than the new threshold of 5 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood. Thus CDC officials calculated that an estimated 535,000 young children have lead poisoning.

A year ago, when the threshold was 10 micrograms, experts estimated that between 77,000 and 255,000 young kids had high levels of lead.

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