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[wtpp] Dumbing Down The Children

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  • eric.britton@ecoplan.org
    =======================Electronic Edition======================= . . . RACHEL S
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      =======================Electronic Edition=======================
      . .
      . RACHEL'S ENVIRONMENT & HEALTH WEEKLY #687 .
      . ---February 17, 2000--- .
      . HEADLINES: .
      . DUMBING DOWN THE CHILDREN-PART 1 .
      . ========== .
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      DUMBING DOWN THE CHILDREN-PART 1

      The NEW YORK TIMES reported in 1999 that, "Federal investigators say most
      states are flouting a 1989 law requiring that young children on Medicaid be
      tested for lead poisoning. As a result, they say, hundreds of thousands of
      children exposed to dangerously high levels of lead are neither tested nor
      treated."[1]
      The TIMES explained that, "The General Accounting Office [GAO], an
      investigative arm of Congress, found that 'few Medicaid children are
      screened for blood-lead levels,' even though the problem of lead poisoning
      is concentrated among low-income children on Medicaid." Medicaid is a
      federal medical insurance program for poor people. In the U.S. today, more
      than 40% of all poor people are children.[2]

      Today nearly a million children (983,000) in the U.S. younger than 5 are
      believed to suffer from low-level lead poisoning, according to the federal
      Centers for Disease Control.[3] Low-level lead poisoning can cause permanent
      learning disabilities, hyperactivity, poor motor coordination, and other
      developmental deficits. Indeed, reduced IQ, hearing loss and diminished
      stature are associated with lead levels considerably lower than the 10
      micrograms of lead per tenth-of-a-liter of blood now deemed "acceptable" by
      the U.S. government.[4]

      Supplementing and corroborating the GAO study, the state auditor of
      California, Kurt R. Sjoberg, reached a similar conclusion about Medicaid
      compliance in a separate 1999 report. "'Thousands of lead-poisoned children
      have been allowed to suffer needlessly,' because California has not complied
      with the federal requirement to test them for lead poisoning, Mr. Sjoberg
      said," according to the TIMES.[1]
      Federal rules require that children in the Medicaid program be tested for
      lead poisoning at age 12 months and again at age two years. The GAO report
      found that states varied considerably in their compliance with this federal
      law. Washington State tested fewer than 1% of eligible children; New Jersey
      tested 40%. Alabama performed best, testing the highest proportion but
      still fewer than half (46%) of all eligible children.
      The TIMES also reported that many states simply don't keep the necessary
      records to know whether they are complying with federal law or not. "Many
      states, including Connecticut [the wealthiest state in the Union] said they
      did not have statewide data on testing rates or the prevalence of lead
      poisoning," the TIMES reported. The question occurs, why would a state not
      maintain records to assess the size of this problem and the steps being
      taken to solve it?

      From a state's perspective, the problem isn't one of cost. A lead
      poisoning test is relatively cheap at $10 or less and besides the federal
      Medicaid program pays 100% of the costs of testing. If a child is found to
      have elevated lead levels, Medicaid will pay 100% of the costs of treatment.
      (Medicaid will NOT pay to test water, paint or house dust to find the source
      of the contamination, however.)
      To summarize: An 11-year-old federal law requires all children up to age 2
      in the Medicaid program to be tested for lead poisoning. Medicaid pays all
      the costs. The purpose of the law is to catch signs of lead poisoning early
      in hopes of limiting the damage to the child's central nervous system. Lead
      poisoning, even at low levels, can leave a permanent legacy of slow
      learning, hearing impairment, cardiovascular disease, behavioral problems
      and delinquent behavior.2 But the states are thumbing their noses at the
      federal law, thus allowing these debilitating medical conditions to develop
      in tens of thousands of American children each year.

      Why? Why are governments refusing to comply with a public health law
      intended to protect children?

      Here are a few preliminary reasons:
      ** Dr. Maxine D. Hayes, the acting health officer for Washington state, gave
      a states-rights explanation: "We don't think it's right for the Federal
      Government to dictate what states should do," she told the NEW YORK TIMES.
      Dr. Hayes seems to be asserting a state's right to ignore the poisoning of
      its children and to disregard federal law if it chooses to do so, a dubious
      legal proposition at best (leaving aside the ethical issues it raises). The
      question still remains, why would a state government choose to do such a
      thing?
      ** Washington state does participate in the federal Medicaid program. The
      state's Medicaid director gave the TIMES a different explanation: "We don't
      believe we have much of a problem with lead exposure here." However, this is
      speculation and the purpose of the lead-testing program is to lay such
      speculation to rest by producing hard evidence. Bitter experience shows that
      testing is likely to identify some lead-poisoned children who live in homes
      built prior to 1978, particularly homes that have been poorly maintained.
      Eighty percent of housing built before 1978 contains some lead-based paint,
      which in poorly-maintained buildings is by now probably turning into a fine
      powdery dust, which toddlers may get on their hands and then into their
      mouths. But of course without testing, a state official is free to speculate
      that his or her state is, miraculously, an exception to this general rule.
      The question remains, why would a state medical officer choose to speculate
      rather than acquire hard data?
      ** Many states have turned over their Medicaid responsibilities to health
      maintenance organizations (HMOs) but have neglected to specify the full
      range of services they expect HMOs to provide, so lead testing has often
      slipped through the cracks. The question remains: since Uncle Sam is picking
      up the tab, why don't states require lead testing when they negotiate
      contracts with HMOs?

      The long and the short of it seems to be that most state governments have
      designed policies that assure that the lead-poisoning of children continues,
      and the federal government seems paralyzed in the face of this rebellion.

      The question remains, Why?

      * * *

      There are two major sources of lead in the environment, both of them human
      in origin. The first is leaded gasoline, which was outlawed in the U.S. in
      1976 but which left a residue of about 5.9 million metric tonnes (13 billion
      pounds) of lead in the environment in the form of a fine, toxic dust.[2]
      Much of that powdery lead is still moving around in soil and house dust.
      Furthermore leaded gasoline is still being used in many countries outside
      the U.S., so contamination of the atmosphere continues, producing a steady
      toxic fallout.[5] Without human help, nature does produce some lead dust,
      but humans now produce 19 times as much as nature produces each year-a
      startling reminder of how numerous market-based decisions can add up to an
      intractable problem of enormous proportions.[5]

      The second major source of lead dust is lead in paint. Lead, the soft, gray
      metal makes an excellent white pigment, and paint made with white lead
      pigment provides a high-quality, durable protective coating. Eventually,
      however, even lead-based paint deteriorates. It begins to flake, peel and
      disintegrate into a fine, powdery dust, which is toxic. Lead in paint was
      restricted on a voluntary basis by the paint industry in 1955, but voluntary
      compliance proved ineffective so, in 1970, Congress outlawed leaded paint
      for interior uses. However there is evidence that leaded paint was used
      illegally inside buildings until at least 1978. Between 4 and 5 million
      metric tonnes (approximately 10 billion pounds) of lead were used in paint
      in the U.S. between 1889 and 1979 and much of it remains where it was
      originally put, slowly deteriorating into a toxic dust. An estimated 42
      million families live in homes containing an average of 140 pounds of lead
      in paint. If it has not been covered, this paint is a constant danger to
      toddlers who often pick up the dust on their hands, then transfer it into
      their mouths.[3]

      The danger of lead in paint was first identified 96 years ago when J.
      Lockhart Gibson, an Australian physician, published the first report in a
      medical journal describing children poisoned by lead-based paint. Gibson
      specifically described the dangers to children from lead-based paint on the
      walls and verandas of houses.[1] The following year Gibson urged that,
      "[T]he use of lead-based paint within the reach of children should be
      prohibited by law."[6] Australia finally took Gibson's advice in 1922, 50
      years before the U.S. took similar action.

      Unfortunately, lead is extremely toxic, especially to children whose
      developing nervous systems are particularly susceptible to lead poisoning.
      As little as 10 micrograms ingested daily can poison a child;[2] a microgram
      is a millionth of a gram and there are 28 grams in an ounce. With 10
      micrograms being a toxic daily quantity, the 10 million metric tonnes of
      lead introduced into the environment by humans during the 20th century
      creates an almost unbelievably large "sink" of toxic powder available in
      soil and in house dust, waiting to cause brain damage in toddlers.

      Lead poisoning of children in the U.S. was first described in medical
      literature in 1914.[7] In 1917, a physician at Johns Hopkins University in
      Baltimore suggested that, if physicians looked harder for lead poisoning in
      children, they would find more of it. A pediatric textbook in 1923 described
      8 cases of childhood lead poisoning: "The poisoning was caused in each
      instance by the child's nibbling and swallowing the paint from his crib or
      furniture."[7] In 1924 an article in the JOURNAL OF THE AMERICAN MEDICAL
      ASSOCIATION said, "There are many mild cases of lead poisoning in children,
      manifested by spasms or colic."[7] The article pinpointed the source of the
      problem as window sills, porch railings, and crib railings coated with lead
      paint. In 1926, an article in the AMERICAN JOURNAL OF DISEASES OF CHILDREN
      said, "Lead poisoning is of relatively frequent occurrence in children."[7]

      Jane Lin-Fu, a well-known lead researcher, summarizes the early history of
      childhood lead poisoning in the U.S. this way: "By the 1920s... severe forms
      of childhood lead poisoning were recognized, and it became obvious that the
      illness was quite common in the U.S."[7] The federal Centers for Disease
      Control concurred in 1979, saying, "Lead poisoning in children from paint
      was recognized early in this century."[7] But recognizing a problem and
      acting upon it are two different things.


      [More next week.]
      =============

      [1] Robert Pear, "States Called Lax on Tests for Lead in Poor Children," NEW
      YORK TIMES August 22, 1999, pg. A1.
      [2] Laura E. Montgomery and others, "The Effects of Poverty, Race, and
      Family Structure on US Children's Health: Data from the NHIS, 1978 through
      1980 and 1989 through 1991," AMERICAN JOURNAL OF PUBLIC HEALTH Vol. 86, No.
      10 (October 1996), pgs. 1401-1405.
      [3] Howard W. Mielke and Patrick L. Reagan, "Soil Is an Important Pathway of
      Human Lead Exposure," ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH PERSPECTIVES Vol. 106, Supplement
      1 (February 1998), pgs. 217-229.
      [4] Institute of Medicine (U.S.) and National Institute of Public Health
      (Mexico), LEAD IN THE AMERICAS (Washington, D.C. and Cuernavaca, Morelos,
      Mexico: Institute of Medicine and National Institute of Public Health,
      1996), pg. 62.
      [5] Jerome O. Nriagu and Jozef M. Pacyna, "Quantitative assessment of
      worldwide contamination of air, water and soils by trace metals," NATURE
      Vol. 333 (May 12, 1988), pgs. 134-139.
      [6] Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner, "'Cater to the Children:' The Role of
      the Lead Industry in a Public Health Tragedy, 1900-1955," AMERICAN JOURNAL
      OF PUBLIC HEALTH Vol. 90, No. 1 (January 2000), pgs. 36-46.
      [7] Richard Rabin, "Warnings Unheeded: A History of Child Lead
      Poisoning," AMERICAN JOURNAL OF PUBLIC HEALTH Vol. 79, No. 12
      (December 1989), pgs. 1668-1674.}}
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