McLean, VA (written by Kaitlyn Ridel/USA Today) -- Thousands of U.S. children with dangerous amounts of lead in their blood may go unassisted this year because local health departments can't afford to monitor them, a survey of major cities by USA TODAY shows.
In May, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cut in half the amount of lead that should trigger medical monitoring and other actions in children younger than 6.
The CDC's action came after its scientific advisory board concluded that even small amounts of lead exposure are associated with reduced IQs, attention problems and poor academic achievement. The new guidelines mean that 450,000 kids are at risk of lead poisoning, up from 77,000.
When a child has a dangerously high blood lead level, health departments try to conduct a home inspection to locate the possible sources of lead poisoning in the child's environment and monitor the child over time to make sure his or her blood lead level improves.
But most local health departments said they can't afford to offer this service to all the children who meet the CDC's new standard, which was reduced from 10 micrograms per deciliter of lead in a child's blood to 5.
Congress cut the CDC budget for lead poisoning prevention programs by 94%, from $29 million in fiscal year 2011 to $2 million for 2012.
"We are actually going to see a reduction or even elimination in services for children at (a level of) 10 and above," said Rebecca Morley, executive director of the National Center for Healthy Housing, which works to eliminate lead poisoning. "It is very concerning because at the same time we are learning about the harmful effects of even much lower levels."
Asked about the funding shortfall, the CDC said in a statement Monday that it "remains committed to reaching the national goal of eliminating childhood lead poisoning as a public health concern by 2020" and that it will work with other federal, state and local officials to make the best use of available funds.
USA TODAY's survey of 21 city health departments shows:
•Only one city, Portland, Ore., does automatic home inspections to determine the source of a child's lead poisoning at the CDC's new poisoning level of 5.
•Twenty departments only offer home inspections at blood lead levels above 10, the old standard set in 1991, and a few do so at 20 or higher.
•Health departments in 14 cities say they have the funds for automatic educational outreach such as mailing information to families of children at the new action level. This means families in about one third of the cities might never receive educational assistance for children meeting the new standard. One city surveyed, St. Louis, sends educational material to families with children with levels of 1 or above.
The Boston Public Health Commission will begin to send information this month to families with children whose lead levels are 5 or above.
"It's better to get information to parents and educate them, and make sure their environment is lead safe," says Leon Bethune, the commission's environmental health director.
The most common sources of lead poisoning are lead-based paint, house dust, water and contaminated soil. Other sources include toys, imported spices and food or candy.
Betsy Berwanger, 56, said a nurse came to her home to educate her family about possible sources of lead after the Cincinnati Health Department found her son Zane, 1, had a blood lead level of 5.1 in June.
She said the nurse told her how lead can be tracked in the house through dirt on a person's shoes or by imported toys.
"It never would have occurred to me lead would be in the paint of children's toys," Berwanger said. Last week, Zane's latest result showed half the lead level of the test in June.
"It is almost miraculous," Berwanger said.
What parents can do
Here are some tips for parents on how to prevent lead poisoning at home.
Get kids tested. Pediatricians and local health departments can test children's blood to measure lead levels. They can also provide advice on how to test homes, yards and gardens for lead.
Wash up. Children are often exposed to lead from putting dirty toys or hands in their mouths.
Create barriers. Keep children away from lead chipping paint on walls and windowsills. Also use contact paper or duct tape to cover holes in walls or block access to other sources of lead.
Wash floors and windows regularly. Floors and windows hold house dust, which is a major source of lead in the home.
Eat well. Good nutrition can protect children from the effects of lead exposure through less absorption.
Avoid bare soil. Soil can contain lead from paint, leaded gasoline and factory emissions. Plant grass or invest in a sandbox so children are not directly playing in the dirt.