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How Does Lead Exposure in Flint Affect the Health of Children and Adults?

Health professionals and scientists now understand there is no safe level of lead exposure for humans. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has warned that even low levels of lead in children’s blood can affect IQ, attention span, and academic achievement. And these effects cannot be reversed.

During the ongoing crisis in Flint, Mich., twice as many children have been found with elevated blood lead levels since the city’s water source was changed. The drinking water crisis in Flint has raised the public profile of lead poisoning and the impacts of lead on public health.

Young children, whose brains are developing rapidly, are the most vulnerable to lead exposure. Pregnant women can pass lead stored in their bodies from current and past exposures to their fetuses. Infants are also at risk due to the fact that lead can be passed through water in infant formula or through breastmilk. Once children begin crawling, they are at increased risk of exposures to lead in paint and household dust through hand-mouth behaviors typical in this age group.

How is Abt Helping to Quantify and Reduce Lead Exposure?
Abt Associates is supporting the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in developing a household action level for lead in drinking water. This involves comprehensive literature evaluations on the association between lead exposure and blood lead levels, exposure factors, and blood lead modeling techniques. Furthermore, we are estimating the potential health risk reductions of the EPA’s lead-free labeling rule. This rule is expected to reduce the risk of mistakenly installing high-lead plumbing products in potable use applications by requiring lead-free plumbing products be labeled for potable use.

“For years, Abt has been at the forefront of helping policymakers understand the relationship between drinking water contaminants and public health,” said Gerald Stedge, Abt Associates’ Natural Resource practice manager. “Our extensive experience working on lead exposure and health effects across exposure pathways will inform our current support to EPA’s drinking water program.”

Cleaner Water, Healthier Babies
Abt is also quantifying the benefits of reduced exposure to lead through a series of case studies on children, pregnant women, and women of childbearing age. So far, Abt staff have been examining lead exposure in drinking water and household paint and the relationship with reduced IQ and increased ADHD.

The work – expected to conclude in late 2016 – is for Healthy Babies, Bright Futures, an alliance of scientists, nonprofit organizations, and donors working to measurably reduce exposures to neurotoxic chemicals in the children’s first 1,000 days. The effort also will examine chemicals such as arsenic, flame retardants, and others. Our work on lead will demonstrate the adverse effects this well-studied toxicant still has on children’s neurodevelopment and serve as a template for other neurotoxic chemicals.

“Ultimately, we want to quantify the benefits of reduced exposure to several toxic chemicals on health,” said Meghan Lynch, associate at Abt for Environment and Resources. “For example, we are trying to explain how many IQ points can be preserved through efforts to limit lead exposure, and use this information to help encourage further exposure reductions in lead and other neurotoxic chemicals.”

Abt’s Years of Experience Examining the Impact of Lead 
Abt has been involved in a range of efforts to examine the impact of lead exposure or devise strategies to reduce it.

In the mid-2000s, Abt research informed the development Lead Safe Homes, a web-based tool funded by the Department of Housing and Urban Development that combined existing information to help identify homes with lead and advise home owners and prospective homeowners on what actions to take if they have lead in their homes.

Although the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission banned the use of lead in paint in 1978, approximately 23 million homes in the U.S. still have significant lead-based paint hazards. Abt continues to evaluate the risks from lead-based paint in support of EPA regulations, such EPA’s Renovation, Repair, and Painting rules that aim to minimize the potential for creating lead hazards during renovation activities.

Lead Hazard to Adults
We also are examining the impact of low-level lead exposure on adults for the EPA. Recent research has determined that low-level exposures in adults are linked to cardiovascular effects. Abt has developed a method to quantify the number of avoided cardiovascular-related deaths cardiovascular deaths prevented, which is to be included in the benefits of EPA regulations targeted at further reducing lead exposures. Low-level lead exposure in women prior to and during pregnancy also can affect their babies’ birth weights, as well as the child’s neurodevelopment. Abt, in conjunction with EPA, is examining the size of these effects at different lead concentrations.

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