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In 2022, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released its final strategy to reduce lead exposure. One of the stated goals of that report was to “identify communities with high lead exposures and improve their health outcomes.”

Even small amounts of lead can lead to severe adverse health effects in children, including issues with learning, brain and nervous system development, hearing and speech, and arrested growth. Children are particularly vulnerable because their developing bodies absorb more lead than adults and because young children tend to put items in their mouths.

“The United States has made substantial progress in reducing lead exposure, but significant disparities remain along racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic lines.”

Lead may be released in the blood during pregnancy, which increases the risk of miscarriage or pre-term birth, and can also damage the brain, kidneys, or nervous system of a developing fetus. Exposure to lead during pregnancy can lead to developmental or behavioral problems in children later on. Lead may also be passed to infants through breastfeeding.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the children most at risk of lead exposure are under six years of age and can come in contact with lead through chipping paint in older homes, imported food or cosmetics, drinking water from lead plumbing or pipes, and even the soil around older buildings or roads.

As the EPA Lead Strategy states, “The United States has made substantial progress in reducing lead exposure, but significant disparities remain along racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic lines.” In developing the report, the EPA accepted feedback from the public from October 2021 through March 2022 and conducted nearly a dozen public listening sessions, including one for tribal communities as they are some of the most impacted by lead.

Communities at Risk

In an article about childhood lead exposure and disparities, the Kaiser Family Foundation writes that “areas with higher blood lead levels are associated with low home ownership, high poverty, and residents who are a majority people of color.” Homes built before 1978, often found in lower-income areas, have a higher risk of lead contamination and are less likely to be updated. A 2021 study published in Environmental Health Perspectives found that Black children and children from low-income households have higher blood lead levels than non-Hispanic White children and children from higher-income households.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, “Indigenous people may also be at increased risk of being exposed to lead through certain traditional practices, such as the contamination of plants and animals in traditional diets, and older housing.”

In a press release from the EPA, Michal Freedhoff, assistant administrator for the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, said “We know that children living below the poverty level or in older housing are at a higher risk of exposure to lead.” He said that the agency was “proud to partner with communities that face elevated risks from lead exposure to create healthier homes for children to thrive.”

That partnership—first piloted in 2020 in tribal communities—includes launching awareness and educational sessions about the dangers of lead and how to mitigate exposure. Working in tandem with over 200 tribal partners, the EPA designed a curriculum called Lead Awareness in Indian Country: Keeping our Children Healthy! which is the basis for the new sessions.

The program, according to the EPA, “creates a starting point to hold informed conversations within communities to teach parents and caregivers about lead. The curriculum also empowers individuals to act within their own homes to protect their children and communities from potential lead exposure.”

Training Leaders

With modules including how to understand lead dangers and exposure, techniques for cleaning, and information on personal hygiene and nutrition, the EPA’s Lead Awareness curriculum features lesson plans and worksheets, as well as activity sheets designed specifically for elementary school-aged children. It also includes presentation slides that community members can use to teach others.

Importantly, the materials are intended to be taught by people with no previous expertise on lead, but instead are already leaders in their communities. The EPA invites community health workers, environmental staff, faith-based leaders, tribal leaders and representatives, social workers, and anyone else interested in educating others about lead to the new educational sessions.

After attending the free sessions, which are in-person in English and Spanish and conducted across the country, leaders will go back to their communities and be able to inform others about lead danger, prevention, and what to do about exposure.

A National Crisis

Historically, community concerns about lead poisoning have not been remedied quickly enough or taken seriously. Bloomberg reported in 2016 about the likely 9,000 children under six years old who were exposed to high levels of lead via drinking water in Flint, MI, between 2014 and 2015.

But the Flint water crisis is only one instance out of many. A Reuters report from that same year found more than 2,600 areas in the United States with lead poisoning rates double that of Flint. As Health Affairs reported, using data from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, “37 million homes in the United States have lead-based paint that will become a hazard if not closely monitored and maintained, and, of those, more 23 million homes have one or more significant lead-based paint hazard.”

The EPA hopes that with its new sessions, communities will be more aware of the dangers and what to do about the poison potentially lurking in or around one’s own home.

Federally-assistive housing, including tribal housing, is more likely to consist of older homes, unmaintained or with older paint or pipes, and to be of greater lead risk. Refugee and immigrant children are also more likely to be settled in older housing. In the 2021 report American Healthy Homes Survey II, released by HUD’s Office of Lead Hazard Control and Healthy Homes, over 29 percent of all housing units in the United States were estimated to contain lead-based paint. Over 2 million homes were revealed to contain lead hazards in the soil surrounding them.

No amount of lead is safe in the blood. As Health Affairs wrote, “countless children over the past century would have escaped lead poisoning if not for government complacency and harmful policies that go against the longstanding and prevailing science on the harmful effects of lead.” The EPA hopes that with its new sessions, communities will be more aware of the dangers and what to do about the poison potentially lurking in or around one’s own home.