One of the great American environmental success stories is the near-eradication of outdoor lead. Banned in gasoline and paint and limited from other sources, lead is dangerous to the brain and central nervous system. Time Magazine named leaded gasoline as one of the 50 worst inventions of all time because it sacrificed human health for car performance (the “no-knock” engine).
Lead is especially harmful to the developing neurological system of young children. Childhood exposure to lead has been associated with lowered IQ, decreased coordination, shortened attention span, aggression, and reading disabilities. Some studies have suggested a correlation between childhood lead exposure and juvenile delinquency and crime.
Fortunately, public health advocates persuaded lawmakers to attack lead pollution in the 1960s and 1970s. When Congress took the first aggressive action against lead by regulating it under the Clean Air Act, policymakers thought of lead primarily as an outdoor threat, a pollutant inhaled from the ambient air. After the crackdown on lead in gasoline, levels of lead in U.S. air decreased by 94 percent between 1980 and 1999.
Now that laws have choked off most outdoor lead emissions, the primary source of human lead exposure is peeling and chipping paint in houses built before the 1978 indoor lead paint ban. That’s enough to lead to over 200 newly-diagnosed lead-poisoned children in Minnesota each year – far fewer than in the past, but still too many.
The Minnesota Department of Health recommends that all children age three through six should receive a yearly review for lead risks. Those living in older housing with lead paint should have blood tests. The agency also warns that renters and homeowners who perform their own repairs and remodeling in houses built before 1978 can disturb lead-based paint, exposing children to lead. Renters and homeowners should follow lead-safe work practices.
We don’t have conclusive information on many pollutants suspected of harm, but the verdict is in on lead, and we know what to do about it. There’s no reason why a single child in Minnesota should suffer lead poisoning.