Exposure to Lead Among Children Has Declined But a Racial Gap Remains

Young Black children living in racially segregated U.S. neighborhoods are still at heightened risk of potentially brain-damaging lead exposure, a new study warns. The study, of nearly 321,000 North Carolina children under the age of 7, found that those living in predominantly Black neighborhoods had higher blood levels of lead than those living in more integrated areas. The disparity still exists although lead-based paints and leaded gasoline have not been produced for a long time.

Lead is a naturally occurring metal that can cause serious health effects if it accumulates in the blood. Young children are particularly vulnerable, as lead can damage their developing brains and contribute to learning or behavioral problems. In general, children in the United States now have much less exposure to lead compared with generations past. But the study, of nearly 321,000 North Carolina children under the age of 7, found that those living in predominantly Black neighborhoods had higher blood levels of lead than those living in more integrated areas.

“A lot of people think this is a problem that’s already taken care of,” said Marie Lynn Miranda, chancellor of the University of Illinois Chicago and first author of the study. “But it’s still the case that Black children have higher blood lead levels.”

Protecting vulnerable children from lead, she said, is the responsibility of “many groups” — from landlords to communities to pediatricians who test children for lead and educate families on how to lessen lead exposure.

“As a society,” Dr. Miranda said, “we have to decide that the children living in these neighborhoods matter as much as children in more affluent, privileged neighborhoods.”

The full study, “Segregation and Childhood Blood Lead Levels in North Carolina,” was published in the journal Pediatrics. It may be accessed here.

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