Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Lead: A Regulatory Success Story

Research!America's former chairman, the Honorable Paul G. Rogers recognized that environmental factors played a major role in health effects and was a consistent advocate for changing environmental policy to improve public health. His work to pass the Clean Air Act is actually part of a larger story about how research played a major role in the 20th century guiding policy to successfully regulate lead.

Today, we know that lead exposure is a problem for children’s health, but this wasn’t always the case. Research evolved the scientific understanding of lead poisoning, which can be broken down into four stages [1].
  1. Children assumed not to be affected by lead
  2. Cases of acute lead poisoning were identified but were thought to result in either death or recovery
  3. Lasting mental deficits only occur when children had clinical symptoms of lead poisoning
  4. Children without clinical symptoms can still have mental deficits in language, IQ, or attention
In response to research, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) adjusted its definition of a safe blood lead level for children, which prompted regulations to reduce lead exposure.

There were two major sources of lead exposure for children: leaded gasoline and lead paint.

Lead was a standard additive in gasoline, but in 1965, research demonstrated that the increased lead concentrations in the air were the direct result of human activities, like burning leaded gasoline. This clear link between air quality and health was why Paul Rogers led the fight to pass the Clean Air Act. Passage of the Clean Air Act paved the way for the phase-out of lead in gasoline by 1996.

Lead based paints were commonly used in homes in the early 1900s. Research linking lead exposure to children's health effects prompted a 1978 federal limit on the lead content in paints used in residential buildings.

Together, these policy actions were extremely successful at reducing lead exposure. Banning leaded gasoline reduced the average air lead concentration by 94%. This ban, in conjunction with the limit on the lead content in paint, reduced the average blood lead level in children more than 7 times below the 1970s level.

This reduction in the United States is estimated to have resulted in an economic gain between $110 and $319 billion dollars for children born in a given year [2]. This economic gain was calculated using the increased worker productivity that will result from the improved cognitive ability of children with lower lead exposures.

Lead regulation is a great example of how research can lead to policy changes that can benefit public health and save money.

1. H. Needleman. Annu. Rev. Med. 2004; 55: 209-222.
2. Grosse, S.D. et al. Environ. Health Perspect. 2002; 110: 563-569.

This is Part 3 of 10 in our Chemical Exposures and Public Health series.
Part 1 - From Interest to Passion
Part 2 - An Environmental Health Risk
Part 3 - Lead: A Regulatory Success Story
Part 4 - Something My Body Needs Anyway?
Part 5 - Obesity's Elephant: Environmental Chemicals
Part 6 - Why Our Approach to Toxicology Must Change
Part 7 - Failures of U.S. Chemical Regulation
Part 8 - Cleaning Up Our Act
Part 9 - Environmental Health Research Saves Lives and Money
Part 10 - Call to Action

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