Covid-19 school closures and lockdowns resulted in thousands of children having increased blood lead levels.

In a study of this consequence of Covid-19, released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to describe blood lead level testing among young children during the Covid-19 pandemic, the CDC analyzed data reported from 34 state and local health departments about blood lead level testing among children aged 6 years and under.

Approximately 500,000 fewer children in the reporting jurisdictions were tested for lead exposure during the first 5 months of 2020 than during the same period in 2019. Estimating from this finding, approximately 10,000 children with elevated blood lead levels were missed because of decreased testing.

“Exposure to lead, a toxic metal, can result in severe effects in children, including decreased ability to learn, permanent neurologic damage, organ failure, and death.”

No safe blood lead level is known. Routine testing, in particular in young children, can detect elevated lead and drive elimination of lead sources and other interventions.

In the United States, today the most common childhood lead exposures are from lead based paint that was used in pre 1978 housing and from drinking water from old lead pipes and fixtures. The pandemic trapped thousands of children in the more than 24 million American homes with significant lead hazards. As a result of Covid-19 school closures, not only has their education suffered, but children are spending more time in contaminated environments and will have ongoing and increased exposure.

EPA has described lead as the number one environmental public health hazard in the United States. And, again, no amount of lead is safe. Period.

This failure by state and local governments to test for lead exposure in children during the Covid-19 pandemic (i.e., very conservatively, an estimated 2% of children not tested are assumed to have levels exceeding acceptable blood level reference values), will negatively impact a generation, with a disproportionate impact anticipated among children from racial and ethnic minority groups and from families who have been economically or socially marginalized.

It is beyond sad that the children are the victims of this failure of government during a pandemic, if not also more broadly, but their will be larger costs borne by our society caring for theses individuals, and there will also be other implications, including maybe perversely in lead litigation for owners of housing with significant lead hazards.

The study is, Courtney JG, Chuke SO, Dyke K, et al. Decreases in Young Children Who Received Blood Lead Level Testing During COVID-19 – 34 Jurisdictions, January-May 2020. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2021; 70:155–161. DOI: icon.