NEWS | May 15, 2017

Alliance calls to eliminate lead poisoning in American children by 2021


An alliance of leading scientists, health professionals and children’s advocates known as Project TENDR has recommended new national goals for protecting American children from lead poisoning. 

Irva Hertz-Picciotto Irva Hertz-Picciotto

In a viewpoint published today in JAMA Pediatrics, alliance members David Bellinger, Bruce Lanphear and Aimin Chen chart a course for better safeguarding children from lead poisoning within five years and eliminating lead exposures by 2030.

“Project TENDR was launched with the goal of eliminating chemicals from the environment that science has shown are harmful to children’s health,” said TENDR co-founder Irva Hertz-Picciotto, professor in the UC Davis Department of Public Health Sciences. “We are beginning with specific recommendations for reducing lead exposure and toxicity, given the volume of evidence that it is a preventable and far too common danger to children’s brain development.”

Recent research shows that even low levels of lead in a child’s blood can harm neurodevelopment, leading to learning disabilities, lowered IQ and attention disorders. The National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities confirms that one in six children in the U.S. has a learning or developmental disability. On average, it costs twice as much to educate a child with a learning or developmental disability as it does to educate a child without one, according to the National Education Association and the American Institutes for Research.

"The time has come to consign childhood lead poisoning to the medical history books,” said Bellinger, lead author of the viewpoint and professor of neurology at Boston Children’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School. “We know where the lead is, we know how it gets into children’s bodies, we know what it does to harm health. What we need is the political will to get the job done.”

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there is no safe level of lead. However, federal standards on allowable levels of lead in paint, dust, air, water and soil are obsolete and have failed to protect children and pregnant women in cities nationwide.

The viewpoint authors recommend these prevention-based standards to eliminate lead toxicity:

  • Federal agencies should adopt health-based standards and actions that rely on the most up-to-date scientific knowledge.
  • Federal, state and local governments should protect pregnant women and children by identifying and remediating sources of lead exposure prior to exposure.
  • Congress should create an independent expert advisory committee to develop and fund a long-term national strategy to eliminate lead toxicity in pregnant women and children.

"Some may say that lead is already low, or, that we are pushing for too much,” explained viewpoint co-author Chen, associate professor of environmental health at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine. “But lead is entirely toxic, period. We want to reduce exposure so that by 2021 there is no child with blood lead levels above 5 microgram/deciliter, which is the current reference limit set by the CDC. Currently about 2.5 percent of U.S. children between ages 1 and 5 years still have blood lead levels above that.”

The viewpoint team said their recommendations incur high benefits for low costs. A 2009 study by the Economic Policy Institute found that for every $1 spent to reduce exposures to lead, society would benefit by $17-$221. This benefit is comparable to that of childhood vaccines.

"No matter how you look at it — protecting kids’ brains, reducing the numbers of kids needing special education, increasing the number of productive workers paying taxes or increasing global competitiveness — it makes sense to eliminate lead exposure,” said co-author Lanphear, professor of children’s environmental health at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia.

At its interim meeting in November 2016, the American Medical Association’s House of Delegates adopted policy supporting regulations and efforts designed to protect young children from lead exposure, in alignment with Project TENDR’s goals.

The authors received no external funding for the viewpoint. Project TENDR has received support from the John Merck Fund, Passport Foundation, Ceres Trust and the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences.

About Project TENDR
Project TENDR, which stands for “Targeting Environmental Neuro-Development Risks,” is an alliance of over 50 of the nation’s top scientists, health professionals and children's advocates. It was launched and is co-directed by Maureen Swanson of the Learning Disabilities Association of America and Irva Hertz-Picciotto, director of the UC Davis Environmental Health Sciences Center. TENDR’s long-term mission is to lower the incidence of neurodevelopmental disorders such as ADHD, autism and learning disabilities by reducing exposure levels of chemicals and pollutants that can contribute to these conditions, especially during fetal development and early childhood. Visit Project TENDR’s consensus statement for more information.