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Finally Starting to Get the Lead Out

March 03, 1991

It can slip insidiously into the tiny systems of helpless children even before birth. It travels into their small unprotected bodies in infinitesimal amounts from seemingly innocuous sources--paint, dust, soil and even water. It lurks in their blood, addling the mind, poisoning their bodies with sometimes deadly results. It is among the worst of environmental diseases: lead poisoning in children.

About 3 million to 4 million American children under the age of 6 suffer from the toxic substance. It is a problem requiring a national solution; three-quarters of the affected children are poor.

Recognizing lead as the the "No. 1 environmental poison for children," the Bush Administration has proposed a long-overdue program to reduce lead exposure. It calls for $1 billion to be spent over the next five years, but only $50 million in fiscal 1992. While advocates praise the program, they worry that funding is sorely inadequate. Federal commitments are crucial to eliminating this environmental risk. Administration officials say state and local governments and the private sector will have to share in the costs.

"Lead poisoning is entirely preventable, yet it is the most common and societally devastating environmental disease of young children," said Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Louis W. Sullivan. Constant exposure can affect virtually every bodily system and is particularly harmful to the central nervous system. Children suffering from lead toxicity typically suffer from learning disabilities, deficits in IQ and behavioral problems.

The Administration's program takes a comprehensive approach compared to the previous ad hoc solutions of the past. Although lead-based paints were banned nearly 15 years ago, more than half of U.S. households have walls which at one time or another were covered with lead-based paint.

The problem is particularly acute in decaying housing where hungry children often eat plaster chips. Lead particles also creep into homes with dust and into soil that children play in. Water can be tainted from corroding lead pipes in old homes.

The Administration calls for expanding prevention programs to identify and treat the estimated 250,000 children with extremely dangerous lead levels; eliminating existing lead-based paint in housing and decreasing other sources of lead exposure, including the amount in drinking water and identifying major geographic "hot spots," including areas in Southern California, known for high concentration of contaminated homes that put children at risk.

Removing the silent threat of lead exposure should be a high priority. There is no cost too great to protect children from so unnecessary a risk.

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