Starting in 2014, the impoverished city of Flint, Michigan, experienced the highest-profile lead exposure crisis in recent American history.
Lead levels in Flint’s children spiked after the city failed to properly treat a new water source. Eventually, the state of Michigan and the city of Flint were forced to agree to a $641 million settlement for residents affected by the lead poisoning, and several state officials, including former Gov. Rick Snyder, were criminally indicted for their role in exposing children to lead.
While estimates differ, a prominent study found that the share of screened Flint children under the age of 5 with high lead levels reached 4.9 percent in 2015, up from 2.4 percent before the problems with lead contamination began. According to the CDC guidance at the time, a level of lead in blood that would be considered high was 5 micrograms per deciliter (µg/dL) (the agency has since lowered the threshold to 3.5 µg/dL). That said, no level of lead exposure is considered safe, and even exposure well below public health recommendations can be quite harmful. That nearly 5 percent of young children in Flint faced exposure to rates that high is a travesty.
As scandalous as the Flint lead crisis is, it’s sobering to know that it may be just the tip of the iceberg globally.
A recent systematic evidence review, widely cited and respected in the field, pooled lead screenings from 34 countries representing two-thirds of the world’s population. The study estimated that 48.5 percent of children in the countries surveyed have blood lead levels above 5 µg/dL.
Let me repeat that: Flint became the symbol of catastrophic lead exposure in the United States. The breakdown of a long-neglected system was so terrible that it led to headlines for months and even became an issue in the 2016 presidential election. Yet children in low- and middle-income countries are, per this estimate, 10 times likelier to have high blood lead levels than children in Flint were at the height of the city’s crisis.
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