WEDNESDAY, May 16, 2012 (HealthDay News) -- U.S. health officials on Wednesday lowered the threshold for what's considered lead poisoning in young children.
The change by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reduces the definition of lead poisoning from 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood to 5 micrograms.
That means many more children under 5 years of age could be diagnosed with too much lead in their blood, a condition that's been linked to developmental problems and even a lower IQ.
Lead, a metal once common in gasoline and house paint, can permanently damage developing brains.
The CDC's action is the first time in 20 years that the level for acceptable levels of lead in the bloodstream have been adjusted.
In January, the Advisory Committee on Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention voted to recommend that the federal government change the standard for lead poisoning from 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood to 5 micrograms.
"We are delighted that we have finally moved forward," Ruth Ann Norton, executive director of the Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning, said at the time. "It's long overdue. This is science that's been out there."
Existing guidelines have given parents and doctors a false sense of security that children are safe from harm, Norton said.
The CDC's decision means as many as 1 million children could be diagnosed with lead poisoning, up from the current 250,000, according to Dr. John Rosen, a professor of pediatrics and head of the division of environmental sciences at the Children's Hospital at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City.
"Ten [micrograms] was established 20 years ago and there are at least 20 articles which demonstrate unequivocally that there are adverse effects of lead on IQ and intellectual and cognitive development at blood levels between 5 and 9," Rosen told HealthDay.
Although banned from house paints in 1978, lead-based paint in deteriorating housing remains the major source of childhood lead poisoning today, he said.
Lead is also found in some art supplies and imported toys, old painted toys, household pipes and faucets, certain hobby equipment and miniature lead figures. The metal can enter children's bodies if they touch these items and put their fingers in their mouths, or swallow the items.
Damage from lead exposure is irreversible. "It affects memory, learning, being able to sit, listen and learn in school, abstract thinking, planning, organization, communication skills and fine motor skills," Rosen said.
The U.S. National Institutes of Health recently endorsed similar recommendations about blood lead levels.
The new CDC standard will push health departments and housing departments around the country to improve code enforcement and focus on the only cure for lead poisoning, which is primary prevention, Norton said. "There is no drug, no treatment that reverses the impact of lead poisoning," she added.
The problem with lead paint has lingered for decades, experts said.
"There will not be an end until there is a federal mandate to totally de-lead all pre-1960 housing," Rosen said. He emphasized that de-leading of a home should only be done by a licensed lead-removal contractor, as is required by law.
For more on lead poisoning, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.