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America's Children: Key National Indicators of Well-Being, 2013

Lead in the Blood of Children

Lead is a major environmental health hazard for young children. Childhood exposure to lead contributes to learning problems (including reduced IQ and reduced academic achievement) and behavioral problems.63 A blood lead level of 5 µg/dL is defined as "elevated" for purposes of identifying children for follow-up activities such as environmental investigations and ongoing monitoring,64 but no level of childhood lead exposure can be considered safe,65 and adverse health effects can occur at much lower concentrations.63 Lead exposures have declined since the 1970s, due largely to the removal of lead from gasoline and fewer homes with lead-based paint. However, 25 percent of U.S. homes have significant lead-based paint hazards, such as high lead levels in dust and soil, which may contribute to childhood exposure.66 Children ages 1–5 are particularly vulnerable because they frequently engage in hand-to-mouth behavior.

Indicator Phy4.A: Percentage of children ages 1–5 with blood lead levels at or above 5 µg/dL, 1988–1994, 1999–2002, 2003–2006, and 2007–2010
Percentage of children ages 1–5 with blood lead levels at or above 5 µg/dL, 1988–1994, 1999–2002, 2003–2006, and 2007–2010

NOTE: The reference level of 5 µg/dL is the 97.5th percentile of blood lead levels for children ages 1–5 in 2005–2008. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) currently uses this reference level to identify children with elevated blood lead levels.

SOURCE: National Center for Health Statistics, National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.

Indicator Phy4.B: Percentage of children ages 1–5 with blood lead levels at or above 5 µg/dL by race and Hispanic origin68 and poverty status, 2007–2010
Percentage of children ages 1–5 with blood lead levels at or above 5 µg/dL by race and Hispanic origin and poverty status, 2007–2010

* Estimate is considered unstable (relative standard error is greater than 30 percent but less than 40 percent).

** Estimate is considered unreliable (relative standard error is greater than 40 percent).

NOTE: The CDC currently uses 5 µg/dL as a reference level to identify children with elevated blood lead levels.

SOURCE: National Center for Health Statistics, National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.

  • About 3 percent of children had blood lead levels at or above 5 µg/dL in 2007–2010, compared with 26 percent in 1988–1994.
  • Six percent of Black, non-Hispanic children had blood lead levels at or above 5 µg/dL in 2007–2010.
  • Four percent of children living in poverty had blood lead levels at or above 5 µg/dL in 2007–2010.
  • The median blood lead concentration for children ages 1–5 dropped from about 15 µg/dL in 1976–1980 to about 1 µg/dL in 2007–2010.67 The 95th percentile blood lead concentration dropped from about 29 µg/dL in 1976–1980 to about 3 µg/dL in 2009–2010.

table icon PHY4.A HTML Table, PHY4.B HTML Table

63 National Toxicology Program. (2012). NTP monograph on health effects of low-level lead. Research Triangle Park, NC: National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, National Toxicology Program. Retrieved from http://ntp.niehs.nih.gov/go/36443.

64 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2012). CDC response to advisory committee on childhood lead poisoning prevention recommendations in low level lead exposure harms children: A renewed call for primary prevention. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/nceh/lead/acclpp/cdc_response_lead_exposure_recs.pdf.

65 Advisory Committee on Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention. (2012). Low level lead exposure harms children: A renewed call for primary prevention. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/nceh/lead/ACCLPP/Final_Document_030712.pdf.

66 Jacobs, D.E., Clickner, R.P., Zhou, J.Y., Viet, S.M., Marker, D.A., Rogers, J.W., ... Friedman, W. (2002). The prevalence of lead-based paint hazards in U.S. housing. Environmental Health Perspectives, 110(10), A599–606.

67 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (2013). America's children and the environment (3rd ed.).Avaialble at www.epa.gov/ace.

68 For 2007–2010, the revised 1997 Office of Management and Budget (OMB) standards for data on race and ethnicity were used. Persons could select one or more of five racial groups: White, Black or African American, American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, and Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander. Included in the total but not shown separately are American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, and "Two or more races." Data on race and Hispanic origin are collected separately but combined for reporting. Persons of Hispanic origin may be of any race.