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Recent Developments in Low-Level Lead Exposure and Intellectual Impairment in Children

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journal contribution
posted on 22.11.2013, 12:53 by Karin Koller, Terry Brown, Anne Spurgeon, Len Levy
In the last decade children’s blood lead levels have fallen significantly in a number of countries, and current mean levels in developed countries are in the region of 3 μg/dL. Despite this reduction, childhood lead poisoning continues to be a major public health problem for certain at-risk groups of children, and concerns remain over the effects of lead on intellectual development in infants and children. The evidence for lowered cognitive ability in children exposed to lead has come largely from prospective epidemiologic studies. The current World Health Organization/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention blood level of concern reflects this and stands at 10 μg/dL. However, a recent study on a cohort of children whose lifetime peak blood levels were consistently < 10 μg/dL has extended the association of blood lead and intellectual impairment to lower levels of lead exposure and suggests there is no safety margin at existing exposures. Because of the importance of this finding, we reviewed this study in detail along with other recent developments in the field of low-level lead exposure and children’s cognitive development. We conclude that these findings are important scientifically, and efforts should continue to reduce childhood exposure. However, from a public health perspective, exposure to lead should be seen within the many other risk factors impacting on normal childhood development, in particular the influence of the learning environment itself. Current lead exposure accounts for a very small amount of variance in cognitive ability (1–4%), whereas social and parenting factors account for 40% or more.



Environmental Health Perspectives, 2004, 112 (9), pp. 987–994


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