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January 27, 2016

Lead Harms Wisconsin Children

The Flint water crisis has highlighted the damage that lead exposure inflicts on children, families, and communities. In Flint, residents were exposed to high levels of lead in the drinking water after a governor-appointed city manager, with an eye towards saving money, switched the city’s water source. Exposure to lead in childhood can cause permanent learning difficulties, behavior problems such as aggression, problems with fine motor skills, and decreases in intelligence.

The lead crisis in Flint is a good reminder that no amount of lead exposure is safe for children — yet children across the county continue to be exposed to lead and suffer the consequences. In Wisconsin, the main source of lead exposure is paint in homes and apartments that were built before the late 1970s, when paint still contained lead. Paint that is peeling off walls exposes older layers of paint, some of which may contain lead. Children may eat small chips of lead paint or get small bits of paint chips or “dust” on their fingers — and then put their fingers in their mouths, introducing lead into their system.

The good news is that childhood lead poisoning is no longer as widespread as it was several decades ago, when national measures to reduce lead poisoning were put in place. Communities have reaped the benefits of lower levels of lead exposure, including lower rates of crimes committed by youths. Yet there is still more work to do to protect children and communities. This map shows the percentage of children tested by health departments in each county that had elevated blood lead levels, by year. Only when no more children are exposed to lead can we afford to pull back on efforts to reduce lead poisoning.

Tamarine Cornelius