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The Failed Promise To Eradicate Child Lead Poisoning

Congress could have invested more, but cut funding instead

A delivery man hauls bottled water to Flint, where the lead-tainted water is still not safe to drink. ( Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
A delivery man hauls bottled water to Flint, where the lead-tainted water is still not safe to drink. ( Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

More than 16 years ago, federal officials made a claim that in light of the ongoing water crisis in Flint, Mich., now seems tragically optimistic.  

Childhood lead poisoning could be eradicated in the United States – easily, affordably and within 10 years, they said. That conclusion came from a presidential task force report published in February 2000.  

But Congress failed to follow through.  

Federal spending on lead paint abatement, the focus of the 2000 report, was cut repeatedly after a brief spike in 2003, and never rose to even the most conservative estimate of what it would have taken to meet the task force’s goals, according to documents and interviews with public health experts.  

Federal spending on screening children for lead poisoning was cut almost entirely in 2012, and was only partially restored in 2014. The report did not focus on lead in water, which was – wrongly, it turned out — not considered much of a threat. Other sources of lead poisoning — including batteries, imported toys and spice blends — have never been fully addressed.  

The result: Despite earlier declines, there are still more than 4 million children in this nation at risk of exposure to lead and its resulting neurological impairments, according to the Centers for Disease Control.  

“We’ve known how to solve this problem for a long time,” said David Jacobs, a former director of the HUD lead office who worked on the task force report. “It’s not like there was a technical deficit of knowledge, or we didn’t have the resources.” The unkept promise will be in full view Wednesday as the latest congressional committee explores the repercussions of the water contamination crisis in Flint, where more than 9,000 children under age 6 may have been exposed to lead.  

The water in Flint is still not safe to drink, two years after the city switched its water source, according to findings released Tuesday by scientists at Virginia Tech.  

The crisis has also drawn attention to communities across the country where average blood lead levels remain high.  

“Flint should serve as a wake-up call that this major public health challenge can no longer be ignored,” said Energy and Commerce Ranking Member Frank Pallone, Jr., D-N.J..  The Energy and Commerce hearing will focus on the public health response in Flint and across the nation, with witnesses including  University of Michigan pediatrician Mona Hanna-Attisha, who was among the first to sound an alarm in Flint.  

“While short-sighted, cost-cutting and willful bureaucratic blindness may have caused the calamity in Flint, the effect has been nothing short of a natural disaster,” her prepared statement reads.  

Public health experts who focus on lead have compared the crisis in Flint to the 1968 Farmington Mine explosion in West Virginia or the leaching of cancer-causing chemicals from Love Canal in upstate New York in 1978. Both were public health disasters that captured national attention and forced Congress to institute far-reaching reforms.  

“The goal to eradicate lead poisoning in this country is very achievable” still, said Philip J. Landrigan, a pediatrician and epidemiologist at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, whose research played a key role in the phasing out of lead in gasoline. “We’re really at the stage of needing to muster the political will to go the next mile.”  

full-width-web-lead-01 Studies in the 1960s showed that lead could damage children’s neurological development even at low levels, and in 1975, the EPA issued regulations that would eventually ban lead additives in gasoline. In 1977, a ban was imposed on lead in paint intended for residential use. The steep decline in average blood lead levels in children that resulted was considered one of the biggest public health victories of the century. But instead of spurring Congress to take the final steps, the success bred complacency.  

The 2000 report found that much of the infrastructure was already in place to inspect and treat homes with high levels of lead paint. It also found that addressing lead in the country’s pre-1960 housing stock would cost between $230 million to $16.6 billion.  

Instead, HUD spending on lead poisoning prevention peaked at $176 million in 2003, and finally leveled off at $110 million in 2014, according to numbers provided by Jacobs and a Roll Call review. The CDC budget for children’s blood level screening and management dropped from $29.3 million to $2 million during the 2012 sequester and was only partially restored, to $15 million, in 2014.  

“We have to remain vigilant,” said Tom Neltner, Chemical Policy Director at the Environmental Defense Fund. But “the CDC, the primary agency that is supposed to be vigilant, cut the program.”  

Every state used to test children’s lead levels and report the results of those blood tests to the CDC. Twenty-one states no longer report any such results, according to a letter from the committee.  

Contact Akin at and follow her on Twitter at @stephanieakin

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