From 2007 to 2010 — just before the lead-paint rule took effect — an estimated 535,000 U.S. children aged 1 to 5 had high enough levels of lead in their blood to merit concern, a new survey by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) finds. The study also noted how lead levels in kids' blood has declined markedly over the decades. But the CDC, stressing that no safe blood level for kids has ever been identified, said it concurs with other groups that promoting lead-safe homes "is the only practical approach to preventing elevated [blood lead levels] in children."

The CDC's findings, published April 5 in its Mortality and Morbidity Weekly Report, will likely figure in the debate over the Environmental Protection Agency’s Renovation, Repair and Painting (LRRP) rule. The rule took effect April 22, 2010, and requires contractors performing renovation, repair, and painting projects that disturb lead-based paint in homes, child care facilities, and schools built before 1978 to be certified and to follow specific work practices to prevent lead contamination. Ignoring the new rules can lead to fines of up to $37,500 per day.

Remodelers, building material dealers, and related parties have been pressing the EPA and Congress to change the rule, primarily by reinstating a provision that would have permitted homeowners to voluntarily remove themselves from the effect of the rule if they attest that nobody lives in the house who is younger than 6 years old or is pregnant. Removing the opt-in provision increased the number of homes potentially affected by the rule to 79 million from 38 million.

The CDC based its report on an analysis of data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) for 1999-2002 and 2007-2010 in which it found that 2.6% of the young children in the 2007-2010 survey sample had blood lead levels (BLLs) of at least 5 micrograms per deciliter. Health officials used to regard 10 micrograms per deciliter as the point at which exposure reached an official "level of concern." But in May 2012, the CDC accepted the recommendation from its Advisory Committee on Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention (ACHLPP) that it should shift that official level of concern to any mark shared by children above the 97.5th percentile, largely because health officials have never set a maximum safe level for lead exposure. Thus, this new report pegs that level at 5 micrograms per deciliter.

The report noted the "substantial progress" made in reducing the number of children with elevated BLLs over the past four decades. The 1976-1980 NHANES data found an estimated 88% of children aged 1 to 5 had BLLs equal to or greater than 10 micrograms per deciliter. By 1994, that percentage had plunged to 4.4%, and in 1999-2002 it fell to 1.6%, and during 207-2010 it shrank again to just 0.8% of all children in the 1 to 5 age group. The CDC credits that sharp drop to the elimination of lead in gasoline, the ban on lead in paint, and the reductions in lead in products marketed to children. 

In January 2012, the CDC's advisory committee on childhood lead poisoning prevention set BLLs of 5 micrograms per deciliter as its new target to fight. The percentage of kids at or above that level has shrunk from 8.6% in 1992-2002 to 4.1% in 2003-2006 to 2.6% in 2007-2010.

Childhood exposure to lead can have lifelong consequences, the report reminded readers. "CDC concurred with ACCLPP that primary prevention (i.e., ensuring that all homes are lead-safe and do not contribute to childhood lead exposure) is the only practical approach to preventing elevated BLLs in children," the report said. "Prevention requires reducing environmental exposures from soil, dust, paint, and water, before children are exposed to these hazards. Efforts to increase awareness of lead hazards and nutritional interventions to increase iron and calcium, which can reduce lead absorption, are other key components of a successful prevention policy." —Craig Webb is editor-in-chief of REMODELING.

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