Healthy Schools Blog

Lead_warning_shutterstock_469720721A study published just a few weeks ago in The Lancet Public Health found that past exposure to lead may be the cause of more than 400,000 deaths in the United States ever year. This new research, which focused on the health risks of low-level lead exposure, is the first of its kind to suggest that breathing or consuming even small amounts of the neurotoxin lead can significantly impact long-term health.

Lead occurs naturally in soil and water, and has been used in varying amounts in a wide variety of products including gasoline, paint, ceramics, pipes, batteries, and cosmetics, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). It is emitted into the air from past and current uses, and also from industrial sources. Like many toxic chemicals, its use was once so widespread that it can now be difficult to avoid. Its toxic legacy lingers.

In honor of this year’s National Healthy Schools Day, it’s time to end lead’s reign as a primary poisoner of innocent children. Now more than ever, it seems as if students are under siege from the moment they enter school each day. There are so many dangers they cannot protect themselves against. The least we can do is help ensure the water they drink, the air they breathe, and the food they eat is free from lead.

As I’ve been saying for more than two decades, children are not just small adults. Their growing bodies are impacted more strongly by the negative elements in our environment, such as lead. As the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes on its website, lead is absorbed and stored in our bones, blood, and tissue. Prolonged exposure may lead to a range of mild and serious health problems, including depression, constipation, nausea, heart disease, kidney disease, cancer, and fertility problems.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), children absorb 4-5 times as much lead from a given source. In particular, lead affects children’s brain development, resulting in reduced IQ, behavioral changes such as shortened attention span and increased antisocial behavior, and reduced educational attainment. Beyond the brain, lead also causes anemia, hypertension, renal impairment, and impaired functioning of the immune system.

The effects of lead are believed to be irreversible.


When lax oversight of water systems allows for lead contamination in schools, it negates decades of work by children’s health advocates, such as myself and others, who are fighting every day to raise awareness of the environmental perils threatening our children. Despite all our best efforts and decades of trying to eliminate lead exposures, there are approximately half a million U.S. children ages 1-5 with blood lead levels above the public health threshold of 5 micrograms per deciliter, although it’s important to note that there is NO safe blood lead level in children.

In late 2017, Reuters published a report that found more than 3,800 neighborhood areas in the U.S. with lead poisoning rates at least double of what was found in Flint, Mich. during the peak of their ongoing water crisis, which began more than four years ago.  This is a national, widespread problem that reaches into our schools and far, far beyond.

National Health Schools Day can be the start of a moment of reckoning with our nasty history of lead contamination in this country. Let’s meet decades of inaction with action, and do what we can throughout our children’s lives to prevent lead exposure in ways big and small. Grand gestures, such as replacing lead-based pipes and stripping walls of lead-based paints, can be costly endeavors. But the cost of doing nothing is greater.

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