Lead Poisoning Prevention Week: New Data Show Drop-Off in Screening

Number of California Young People Ages 0 to 20 Screened for Lead Poisoning,
by Blood Lead Level, 2010-2020

Trend graph showing blood lead levels among California children and young adults ages 0 to 20 screened for lead poisoning between 2010 and 2020.

To protect children from lead poisoning, California must increase childhood

California recently declared October Children’s Environmental Health Month, aiming to expand awareness and action around environmental health hazards to children. The last week of October also marks International Lead Poisoning Prevention Week. Lead poisoning is the most common environmental illness among kids in California, with even minimal exposure to the heavy metal posing serious long-term risks to young people statewide.

There is no known safe level of lead exposure.

Screening is critical because lead exposure usually does not result in obvious symptoms and often goes undetected. Buildup of lead in the body, even at low levels, can cause lifelong physical, neurological, cognitive, and behavioral problems, and high levels of blood lead can be fatal.

More lead exposure screening is urgently needed.

New data reveal that the number of California youth screened for lead poisoning has dropped dramatically in recent years. In 2020, the number of blood lead tests for young people ages 0-20 was nearly 50% lower than in 2010. While COVID-19 disruptions help explain a sharp 2020 drop-off compared with 2019 (nearly 30%), the trend reveals that falling screening rates have been a problem in California for at least the last decade.

What do blood lead levels mean?

As of 2021, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends public health action for children recording blood lead levels (BLLs) of 3.5 micrograms per deciliter (mcg/dL) or higher. At present, the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) has a higher threshold for services (4.5 mcg/dL) but plans to adopt the CDC’s new recommendations. In California, young people with two BLL results at 9.5 mcg/dL or above (or a single result at 14.5 mcg/dL or above) are eligible for comprehensive case management support, including public health nursing services, home inspection, and environmental investigation.

Due to federal and state regulations, the vast majority of young people tested in California are under age 6 (92% in 2020). In 2020, 1.2% of this group (4,130 kids) recorded BLLs of 4.5 mcg/dL or higher. Among ages 6 to 20, 2.3% had BLLs between 4.5 and 9.49 mcg/dL, while 0.5% had levels at 9.5 mcg/dL or above. Altogether, this means there were at least 4,930 young people statewide, most under age 6, in need of public health services for lead exposure.

But without comprehensive testing, the true scope of the problem remains unknown.

All children are at risk, some disproportionately so.

Lead exposure usually occurs through contact with contaminated paint, water, dust, or soil. Children under age 6 are the most vulnerable, as lead is easily absorbed by their developing nervous systems. They are also more likely to be exposed to lead through playing on the ground or hand-mouth contact.

Risk of lead exposure is widespread across communities in California. Analysis by CDPH found that more than 95% of California neighborhoods (census tracts) have at least one risk factor for childhood lead exposure, such as being close to a freeway or having a large share of housing built before 1978. And some communities face multiple risks—10% of neighborhoods have five or more risk factors. Because of these varying risk levels, exposure rates vary widely. Among counties with data in 2020, the percentage of young people with BLLs at or above 4.5 mcg/dL ranged from 0.5% to nearly 5% of those tested.

In addition to differences by location, disparities exist across demographic groups. Inequities in exposure to environmental hazards such as lead have persisted for years, with children of color and those in low-income families facing disproportionate risks.

All children have a right to live, play, and go to school in clean, safe environments. Policymakers, public agencies, schools, health care providers, funders, community organizations, and others—can and should do much more to prevent children’s exposure to lead, increase screening efforts, and improve responses for those who are exposed. Read more about strategies for action.


Join us for “How Families of Children With Special Health Care Needs Are Coping in the ‘New Normal’,” a webinar hosted by PRB and sponsored by the Lucile Packard Foundation for Children’s Health, on Tuesday, Nov. 15, from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. PT.

Take Action

Census Bureau Invites Public Input on Designing 2030 Census

The decennial census is the cornerstone of data-driven government policymaking, voter representation, and social analysis for a decade. The U.S. Census Bureau is looking for ways to improve the 2030 Census through strategies for contacting and providing support to the public, motivating everyone to respond, and using new technology and data sources. Submit your thoughts by Nov. 15.

Children’s Health Resource

LGBTQ Youth and Young Adults Are Coming Out Into a Polarized Environment—and Finding Valuable School and Community Support

Calling out the vulnerability and discrimination LGBTQ youth face can be a starting point for adults and institutions that support youth—and youth themselves—to act for change, according to a new PRB article.

KidsData in the News

A CapRadio story on child care uncertainty among Black families cited KidsData on child care costs and availability.

An article in The Epoch Times (published in Chinese) about youth mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic cited KidsData on the ratio of students to school psychologists in Sacramento County.

A UCI News report on the formation of a community alliance to advance University of California, Irvine as a Latino-thriving institution cited KidsData on California’s K-12 student demographics.


Better Life Lab’s Child Care Innovation Reporting Grants

The Better Life Lab is commissioning a series of reported, data- and character-driven written, video, and/or graphic stories and illustrations that highlight innovations within the child care field. Pitches will be considered and stories commissioned on a rolling basis through spring 2023.

Recently Released Data

We recently released data about asthma and lead poisoning. See links to the latest here.

Posted by kidsdata.org

This entry was posted on Tuesday, October 25th, 2022 at 8:48 am. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

Post a comment/question: