According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2.6% (over one-half million) of children aged 1 to 5 years have elevated blood-lead levels, putting them at risk of permanent brain damage. Although the elimination of lead-based paint in 1978 and leaded gasoline in 1996 have greatly lowered blood-lead levels, some children remain at higher risk for lead exposure, especially those in the low socioeconomic group. Great efforts to reduce exposure to lead continue to be made, but not enough is being done to protect young children from absorbing the lead in the environment by simply increasing our efforts to prevent iron deficiency (ID).
Here are the facts:
There is a clear relationship between ID and lead absorption. Many studies have shown that an iron-deficient young child will absorb more lead from the environment than a child who is iron sufficient. Iron-deficient children have been shown to have higher blood-lead levels than those who are not iron deficient. Iron deficiency increases the gastrointestinal absorption of lead.
Because lead is neurotoxic even at very low levels, it is essential that everything be done to keep blood-lead levels as low as possible. We cannot wave a magic wand to eliminate all the lead around, but we can easily prevent ID in our young children, which will reduce their lead absorption. The current prevalence of ID in toddlers remains much too high, and, in my opinion, is a national disgrace.
What is most troubling is that the Medicaid-eligible children and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Woman, Infants, and Children (WIC)-eligible group of infants and toddlers are most at risk both for lead exposure (often living in houses built before lead paint was outlawed) and for ID attributed to poor nutrition. These children have the highest prevalence rates of ID. A number of studies have documented prevalence rates of ID among these children to be between 10% and 30%.