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CDC changes its definition of lead poisoning in young children

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For young children, any amount of lead exposure is bad. The element can damage children’s brains, stunt growth and cause developmental problems. Now, a new definition of lead poisoning will increase the number of U.S. children found to have dangerously high levels of lead in their blood.

In 2020, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation and UNICEF found that a third of the world’s children have lead poisoning, and estimated that 1.23 million children in the United States have high blood lead levels.

That number will now rise thanks to a change in the way the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines lead poisoning.

The agency used to define lead poisoning in children as 5 micrograms per deciliter of a child’s blood. Now, it has lowered that number to 3.5 micrograms per deciliter.

The move is in response to recommendations by a committee of experts in child health, toxicology and related areas who are charged with advising the Health and Human Services Department on lead exposure and prevention.

The number of children who meet the criteria is expected to double with the new rule, the Associated Press reports.

A recent study in JAMA Pediatrics found that more than a half-million children tested nationwide had detectable blood lead levels.

Lead poisoning is preventable and can be kept at bay by reducing exposure to lead-based paints, contaminated soil and certain foods, medicines and cosmetic products, usually imported from other countries.

Low-income children and children of color, many of whom live in housing built before national lead-based paint laws were revised in 1978, are disproportionately affected nationwide.

Young children are especially at risk because of their rapid growth and development. They’re also curious and tend to put things in their mouths as they explore the world around them. Their bodies can absorb up to five times as much ingested lead as adults. “No level of lead is safe, and yet half of our nation’s children are at risk of lead exposure, often in their own home,” Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said in a news release.