Researchers estimate that about half a million American children will not undergo the lead test in the first half of 2020. Nearly 10,000 of those children may have high levels of toxic metal in their blood.
The study is another worrying indicator of preventive health care that children and adults in the United States have not received since the onset of the pandemic. Children did not come to pediatric appointments, lead tests and routine vaccinations were missing. Of adults who have needed care since March, when widespread closures began to curb the spread of COVID-19, through mid-July 2020, 58 percent reported giving up scheduled preventive visits. Mammography screening visits fell after March 2020 compared to previous years.
Health risks for children with high levels of lead are severe and include brain damage, developmental delays, and learning and behavior problems such as inattention, hyperactivity, and aggression.
The researchers published data from 34 state and local health departments, which evaluated blood level tests in children under 6 years of age. From January to May 2020, 480,172 fewer children were performed, a drop of 34 percent compared to that 2019 time period, according to researchers Feb. 5 in the Weekly Morbidity and Mortality Report. The number of children tested has dropped dramatically since March, according to the data. Overall, those missed tests left 9,603 children with elevated blood lead levels unidentified.
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Those children "remain exposed," says Maitreyi Mazumdar, a pediatric neurologist at Boston Children's Hospital who did not participate in the study. There is no safe level of lead. A reference level of 5 micrograms per deciliter of blood or more is a signal to take action. Lead screenings are the starting point for finding high-risk children and eliminating the source of their lead exposure.
Although blood lead levels have dropped dramatically since the United States began removing leaded gasoline in 1973 and banned lead in house paint in 1978, the toxic metal persists in the environment. Children are exposed to lead by shavings found in homes built before 1978, contaminated earth and old lead pipes and fittings. The number of children with high blood lead levels doubled in Flint after a change in the city of Michigan’s water source caused leaching of the city’s pipes, which contaminated residents ’tap water (SN: 15/02/16).
Children living in poverty and children of color are more likely to be exposed to lead, Mazumdar says. Even low-level exposures can have lasting effects on children’s lives, affecting their “ability to function well in school and have jobs and all these other things that are important in the long run”.
Mazumdar continues, it is still necessary to test lead in children and be up to date on vaccines. the use of masks, hand washing, and other preventative measures may reduce the risk of COVID-19 exposure during pediatric health visits. Lead testing doesn’t take long, she says. "It still has to be done."