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Dispatch: Lead 2010- Childhood exposure to lead

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By Bethany Cutts - Posted on 16 November 2010

Like many other environmental health issues, understanding childhood lead exposure involves land use history, politics, and the global economy. In a panel on childhood lead poisoning, we aim to synthesize the science behind lead’s distribution in the environment, the individual and societal implications of lead exposure in childhood, and barriers and opportunities to reducing lead exposure rates in the future. The panel is tentatively scheduled for Wednesday April 6th at 4 pm at the UC Center Sacramento-1130 K Street, Sacramento, CA 95814.

Lead poisoning continues to be a health threat despite efforts by the public health community to eliminate childhood lead poisoning by the year 2010. The removal of lead from consumer products, such as paint and gasoline, resulted in dramatic declines in the average blood lead levels of children. However, lead persists in the environment and is present in older homes and the surrounding soils. In addition, the burden of elevated blood lead levels is not equally distributed. Some urban communities demonstrate lead poisoning levels of 15-20% while the national average is below 2%.

Four panelists, representing public health science, urban ecology, policy makers, and grassroots organization active in California, will to discuss policy, science and community action on lead poisoning. The panel is open to the public and will include lots of opportunities for audience participation.

Other projects are developing that focus on equity, food security, urban agriculture, and environmental toxin remediation as elements of sustainability policies. Low income communities of color are also more likely to have marginal nutritional status. They are more likely to have elevated blood lead levels. Positive outcomes include physical activity, access to nutritious foods, and connections to nature and community. However, not all the consequences of urban agriculture are positive; the contribution of urban agriculture to exposure to toxins is not well understood. This is particularly relevant in the case of lead (Pb) a heavy metal that has accumulated in urban soils over time because of it’s use in paints and gasoline. Previous work estimates that ingestion or inhalation of fine-grained soil accounts for 82% of childhood lead exposure. While urban gardening may be associated with exposure risks from contaminated soil, the nutritional benefits of fresh fruits and vegetables may decrease susceptibility to lead poisoning. Better access to low cost fruits and vegetables from urban gardens can be an important prevention strategy for reducing lead uptake in children.

Kirsten Schwarz and Bethany Cutts are working with filmmaker Bob Richter to make a documentary on lead. While footage from the panel will most likely not be used in the final filming, but will help us investigate the story lines in play as we develop a compelling central narrative. It may be used in intermediate public outreach (e.g. web videos).