1. Overview

Created by: Maximiliano Galli Da Costa, Danielle Miron, and Avery O’Brien

Lead exposure has been a prevalent issue, particularly in the United States, for over a century. This widespread exposure originates from a once widespread use of lead in both public and private infrastructure. While lead is no longer in active use, it remains in our environments until directly addressed, causing continued exposure. A research study done in 2015 estimated that 54% of the current American population had been exposed to high levels of lead during their childhood (McFarland). 

There are many serious, long-term health effects that can be caused by exposure to any amount of lead. Children are particularly vulnerable to lead exposure. Even low levels of lead affect their brain development, potentially leading to behavioral changes, reduced attention spans, lower IQs, antisocial behavior, hyperactivity, reduced educational achievement, and other general learning and behavior problems. There are no immediate, obvious signs of low exposure, so it is important to proactively prevent it.. Other symptoms that are less common, but still possible, include anemia, renal impairment, changes in the immune system, slowed growth, and hearing or speech problems. Extremely high levels of exposure have occasionally led to seizures, comas, and even death. (WHO, US EPA)

However, children aren’t the only ones affected by lead. Exposure for pregnant women can affect the development of their baby, causing issues in their brain, kidneys, and nervous system. Lead exposure also increases the risk of premature birth, growth restriction, miscarriage, and future learning or behavioral problems in the baby. For the rest of the adult population, lead exposure can have cardiovascular effects, increased blood pressure, decreased kidney function, or reproductive problems in both men and women (CDC, US EPA). 

It’s important to understand that no level of lead exposure is considered safe, but the severity and range of symptoms increases as exposure increases. All the neurological and behavioral symptoms of lead are currently thought to be lifelong and irreversible. While there are some medical treatments to remove very high levels of lead from the bloodstream, these treatments do not reverse health effects that have already occurred. Without medical intervention, lead accumulates in the body and cannot naturally decrease. For these reasons, it’s best to prevent lead exposure from occurring, rather than treating the symptoms after they occur (CDC, EPA).

Blood Lead Levels (BLL) in children in the US

This chart uses information from CDC National Childhood Blood Lead Surveillance Data. In this chart, children are categorized in the population estimates as “calculated as population under 5 years of age plus 20% of population ages 5-9 years,” (“CDC National Childhood Blood Lead Surveillance Data”). Additionally, the numbers being used in this visualization are the amount of children in each state, in 2018, with confirmed blood lead levels greater than or equal to that of 5 µg/dL. This information integrates national level information with information collected by state and local health departments. It should be noted that “some statistics could underestimate the number of children with lead exposure because not all children are tested,” (“CDC National Childhood Blood Lead Surveillance Data”).

Sources:

CDC – National Childhood Blood Lead Surveillance Data. 23 Sept. 2022, https://www.cdc.gov/nceh/lead/data/national.htm.

Health Effects of Lead Exposure | Lead | CDC. 2 Sept. 2022, https://www.cdc.gov/nceh/lead/prevention/health-effects.htm.

Immunotoxicity – an Overview | ScienceDirect Topics. https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/medicine-and-dentistry/immunotoxicity. Accessed 17 May 2023.

Lead Poisoning. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/lead-poisoning-and-health. Accessed 17 May 2023.

McFarland, Michael J., et al. “Half of US Population Exposed to Adverse Lead Levels in Early Childhood.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 119, no. 11, Mar. 2022, p. e2118631119. pnas.org (Atypon), https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2118631119.

“The Unequal Burden of Urban Lead.” Bloomberg.Com, 2 Jan. 2020. www.bloomberg.com, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-01-02/undoing-the-legacy-of-lead-poisoning-in-america.

US EPA, OCSPP. Learn about Lead. 12 Feb. 2013, https://www.epa.gov/lead/learn-about-lead.

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