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Childhood blood lead levels have declined by 95% over the past 45 years

Blood lead levels (BLL) in children declined by 95% from 1976 to 2016, according to a recent analysis. Data was drawn from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) II (1976-1980), NHANES III (Phase 1: 1988-1991 and Phase II: 1991-1994), and Continuous NHANES (1999-2016), comprehensive national surveys that track health and nutrition in all age groups over time. BLL measurements were available for over 27,000 children ages 1 to 11 years.

In children ages 1-5 years, the geometric mean of the BLL declined from 15.2μg/dL in 1976-1980 to 0.83μg/dL in 2011-2016. For children ages 6-11 years, it declined from 12.7μg/dL  in 1976-1980 to 0.60μg/dL in 2011-2016. BLL of 10 μg/dL or greater was found in more than three-quarters of the youngest children at the beginning of the study period, and approximately 0.1% at the end. 

Higher BLLs were associated with non-Hispanic Black race/ethnicity, lower family income-to-poverty-ratio, and older housing age, likely due to unremediated lead-based paint in older houses.

“Deteriorated lead-based paint and dust in older housing remain the primary sources of lead exposure for US children,” the authors note, affecting about 23 million homes. “In addition, an estimated 6.1 million lead service lines are still in place across the nation.”

Reference

Egan KB, Cornwell CR, Courtney JG, et al. Blood Lead Levels in U.S. Children Ages 1-11 Years, 1976-2016. Environ Health Perspect. 2021 Mar;129(3):37003.