EPA, CDC Officials Testify to Senate on Child Lead Poisoning


Allison Young
USA Today

WASHINGTON - A U.S. senator questioned federal environmental health officials at a hearing Thursday about what is being done to address lead poisoning risks posed by contaminated soil around hundreds of old lead factory sites featured in a recent USA TODAY investigation.

"Generations of children are growing up playing in the shadow of these lead smelting plants," said U.S. Sen.Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J. "Throughout the nation, the USA TODAY report shows lead contamination has had a devastating impact … it's obvious we could help fix this problem if the EPA had the resources to fully test and clean up" the sites.

Lautenberg's comments came during a hearing before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works on the latest science on the effects lead has on children's bodies.

The studies show that even small exposures are associated with measurable reductions in IQ, increased incidence of attention disorders and other health problems in children, members were told by scientists from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"No safe blood lead level for children has been identified," Christopher Portier, director of the CDC's environmental health center, testified.

Children can be exposed to lead from a variety of sources. While lead-based paint is the best-known source, a USA TODAY investigation earlier this year revealed the danger posed by lead-contaminated soil around forgotten factory sites that spewed lead particles into neighborhoods for decades before closing in the 1960s or 1970s. Other sources of exposure include soil contaminated from years of leaded gasoline emissions. Children can ingest lead particles by putting dusty toys or hands in their mouths.


"I hope there will be a bipartisan understanding and appreciation of the ongoing impact of childhood lead poisoning," said Rebecca Morley, executive director of the National Center for Healthy Housing.

"This is a terrible time to be scaling back on lead support," Maryland's health secretary,Joshua Sharfstein, in an interview this week. Sharfstein said state health officials have been sending out letters to health providers advising them of the new CDC guidance on children's blood-lead levels. And they're trying to determine how best to manage the cases of children who may not have receive any outreach because their blood was tested before the CDC lowered its action level.

"We want to do everything we can to help these kids with low-level lead exposure," Sharfstein said. "We're trying to figure out with the resources we have what the best approach is."

In Wisconsin, where CDC funding is expected to run out in September, some lead prevention staff have been leaving for more secure jobs and positions have been left vacant, said Henry Anderson, state health officer at the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.

"For us, getting replacement funding takes time, Anderson said in an interview, noting the state has a biennial budget that won't be revisited until next summer. In the meantime, he said the department is trying to figure out how to use the money it has most effectively, which may mean doing fewer home inspections or less comprehensive investigations of how individual children are being poisoned, and scaling back information outreach programs to families and physicians.

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