A Cause for Concern: The Devastating Effects of Lead Poisoning

Lead is a potent toxin capable of causing permanent, devastating damage to the human body, even at low levels of exposure. Lead disrupts organ systems throughout the body, including—most significantly—the brain and central nervous system. For this reason, children, infants, and fetuses, whose bodies and organ systems are still developing, are particularly vulnerable to the toxic effects of lead. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and pediatric experts overwhelmingly agree: There is no safe level of lead exposure in young children.

Although lead can cause permanent injury to older children and even adults, infants and children under the age of six are most vulnerable to lead's neurotoxic effects. Their brains are rapidly developing and do not yet have a fully developed blood-brain barrier to mediate the brain's uptake of lead from the blood. Compared to adults, the bodies of infants and young children are also less capable of breaking down and excreting toxic chemicals like lead. Infants and young children also drink more water per pound of body weight than do adults, and absorb lead, especially lead in drinking water, at higher rates than do adults. Thus, infants and young children are especially vulnerable to lead exposure from contaminated drinking water.

In infants and children, lead exposure can cause lowered IQ scores, developmental delays, dyslexia, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder, and other learning and behavioral challenges. It has been associated with diminished hearing, impaired language skills, shortened attention span, predisposition to hyperactive or aggressive behavior, insomnia, anorexia, muscle damage, and impaired height and growth. In individuals of all ages, lead exposure has been linked to an array of other serious health effects: hypertension, cardiovascular disease, stroke, kidney disease, gastroenterological problems, decreased fertility, anemia, and diminished thyroid and adrenal function. Symptoms of lead-related central nervous system damage can include fatigue, depression, memory loss, headache, convulsions, behavioral changes, coma, and even increased risk of dementia.

Lead exposure results from ingestion of contaminated substances, including water. Upon ingestion, lead is taken up by the blood, where its half-life (the amount of time it takes for its concentration to be reduced by half) is only 60 days. The body treats lead like calcium: like calcium, lead moves quickly from the blood stream to the skeleton, where it remains stored in bone until times of stress, when it may move back into the blood and cause further damage.

Blood lead tests are used to detect exposure to lead and diagnose lead poisoning. However, because the half-life of lead is so short, a blood-lead level may not fully capture the extent of exposure and possible health risk. Blood-lead levels are usually measured in micrograms per deciliter (μg/dL), and 5 μg/dL is a threshold commonly used to denote blood-lead concentration that is significantly greater than the average exposure. It is important to remember that 5 μg/dL is not a threshold of safety: On the contrary, any lead level above 0 μg/dL is capable of causing harm (in fact, the correlation between lead exposure and low IQ is strongest at blood lead levels below 5 μg/dL, suggesting that significant damage already occurs even at the lowest levels of exposure). However, publicly available blood-lead surveillance data generally makes use of such numerical cutoffs for public health tracking purposes.

New Jersey's recent blood-lead surveillance data places Newark at the epicenter of the state's lead poisoning crisis. Lead testing pursuant to N.J.A.C. §8:51A and N.J.S.A. §26:2-137.1‒7, which require monitoring of children less than six years of age, reveals that Newark outpaces every other large city in New Jersey in terms of the number of children with elevated blood-lead levels. In 2017, for example, only 3.8% of New Jersey's children under the age of six lived in Newark, yet 13% of the state's children in that age group with elevated blood-lead levels were found to live in Newark—more than three times the number that one would expect if lead poisoning cases were distributed evenly throughout New Jersey. In some parts of Newark, as many as 8.7% of children in the under six age group have blood levels greater than 5 μg/dL. Given that, as of 2017, only 10% of children in that cohort had ever received even a single blood lead test in their lifetime, and considering that these statistics represent only blood lead levels that are significantly greater than average, the available data likely underestimate the number of Newark children who have been injured by exposure to lead.

If your child has been diagnosed with a blood lead level, or if you believe you or your child have been injured by exposure to lead in Newark, please contact our lead poisoning attorneys for a free case evaluation. Our team of dedicated, lead poisoning attorneys can be reached at 1-800-210-3634, or through the form on this page.

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