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More than 60% of Kansas kids have lead in their blood and other Midwestern states have even higher rates

Suzanne Hogan

Midwestern states had some of the nation's highest percentages of kids with detectable blood-lead levels. And the authors of a new nationwide study say there is no amount of lead that is safe for children.

Children in Missouri appear to have some of the most exposure to toxic lead in the United States — a problem that's also common in Kansas.

A new national study published online this week in JAMA Pediatrics estimates that 82% of Missouri children under the age of 6, and 65% of Kansas children in that age range, have detectable levels of lead in their blood.

Health experts have generally measured exposure through elevated blood-lead levels, which can cause development and learning delays in children. But the study's authors say that children's health can be at risk even at the lower levels in their findings.

“The Centers For Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization both state there is no lower limit — there is no safe level of lead for children,” said study author Dr. Harvey Kaufman of Quest Diagnostics.

Only Nebraska had a higher percentage than Missouri of children with detectable blood lead levels.

Children in the U.S. are often exposed to lead within their homes, through contact with old paint or pipes. The researchers found that lead in blood is more commonly found among children from lower-income households and who live in predominately Black, non-Hispanic neighborhoods.

The study also showed that 4.5% of young Missouri children and 2.6% of young Kansas children had elevated blood lead levels.

The benchmark for elevated blood-lead levels was established by the CDC, but was lowered in 2012 after experts stated that lead is not safe in any amount.

Kaufman acknowledges that the detrimental effects of lower blood-lead levels found in the study have not been proven as significant as elevated levels, but he thinks the potential risks should be cause for concern.

Children’s Mercy Hospital medical director of environmental health Dr. Elizabeth Friedman agrees, saying that low levels of lead can lead to behavioral, developmental or learning difficulties.

“There’s evidence for harm even at really low levels of lead exposure,” Friedman says.

The study involved researchers from Boston Children’s Hospital, Quest Diagnostics and the University of Miami, and included data taken from lab testing of over 1 million children under 6 years of age in every state from 2018 to early 2020.

Copyright 2021 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.

Alex Smith began working in radio as an intern at the National Association of Farm Broadcasters. A few years and a couple of radio jobs later, he became the assistant producer of KCUR's magazine show, KC Currents. In January 2014 he became KCUR's health reporter.