Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The lingering danger to children from lead

Slate MagazineBy Darshak Sanghavi

Mattel's recent recall of more than 1 million toys coated with lead paint has left parents feeling that their children's health was risked by poor safety procedures. So far, it's unknown whether the toys have harmed anyone. But as parents rush to doctors' offices to test their toddlers, many are bound to discover their children possess sm
all amounts of lead...

Unfortunately, recent medical evidence shows even trace amount of lead—at amounts now considered acceptable by the CDC—can damage a child's IQ. Why regulators refuse to believe the data continues a decades-old exercise in willful ignorance. And it's children who are still paying the price.

Doctors have known for more than a century that children could develop seizures and comas from severe lead toxicity, and that surviving victims were frequently brain-damaged. The question has become—and remains—how much lead is too much? Though federal authorities refuse to admit it, it's increasingly clear that no safe threshold for lead exists, and even the tiniest amount can hurt children's developing brains. ...

Initially, the Centers for Disease Control thought kids' brains could tolerate up to 60 mcg/dl of lead because no seizures occurred at that level. But in 1979, Dr. Herbert Needleman reported in the New England Journal of Medicine that lead levels considered safe by the CDC—though far lower than needed to produce seizures and coma—correlated with lower IQs in children. Later, his group reported that lead-poisoned children were more likely to drop out of school and have reading disabilities.

But lead controls were slow in coming, due to powerful industry resistance. ...

Serious damage happens at levels now considered safe for millions of American kids. The data should have galvanized public-health authorities to pursue zero-tolerance lead policies, which would mean nationwide de-leading of unsafe homes. After all, the New England Journal of Medicine reported in 2001 that medicines can't recover lost IQ points from lead poisoning. Once gone, they're gone forever.

Yet no de-leading program happened. Instead, opponents of comprehensive lead removal blatantly politicized the latest science and hatched an economic justification for inaction. ...

Meanwhile, though the Mattel toys have been recalled, little has been done about the wider threat to kids from lead paint. Removing leaded paint (mostly from housing built before the 1970s) can cost tens of thousands of dollars per dwelling, for a total tally of $58 billion nationwide, according to a 2000 EPA report. But progress halted over a pointless debate over the dollar value of a child's IQ points. In 2000, the EPA estimated that national de-leading would ultimately cost taxpayers about $8,000 per saved IQ point. Conservative economists like Randall Lutter of the American Enterprise Institute argued this was not worth the cost. Using a bizarre analysis—based on estimates of how much parents were willing to pay out-of-pocket for drugs to remove lead—Lutter valued a child's intelligence at only $1,100 per IQ point. Arguing for looser lead standards, Lutter concluded that authorities should "reconsider the need for environmental standards that protect children more than their parents think is appropriate." Since 2000, no progress on lowering allowable lead limits has occurred, and in early 2007, Lutter was appointed to lead policy adviser at the FDA.

There has been a lively debate on law and economics as applied to the China Lead Doll Syndrome among my law school faculty colleagues. Maybe someone will want to comment on Randall Lutter's calculations cited above on the tradeoff between $ and IQ points. I wonder what wealthy parents are willing to invest to improve their little darlings' SAT scores when the children are applying for admission to elite colleges?

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