Getting the Lead Out

Monday, May 21, 2012 - 9:19am

New Initiatives Mark Progress but Challenges Remain

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has lowered the threshold for lead poisoning in blood. The change means that blood lead poisoning (labeled by the CDC as "a level of concern") will now be defined as 5 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood. The old standard was 10 micrograms, although many experts believe that any measurable lead in blood should not be considered safe. Lead poisoning can cause brain damage, behavior problems, and learning disabilities.

This lower threshold means that many more children could be diagnosed as having high levels of lead. In Dane County the picture is a little more encouraging. In the latest Environmental Health Report Card, Public Health - Madison and Dane County (PHMDC) reported that the number of lead screen test had increased from 3,120 to over 5,500 in 2010. The percentage of children diagnosed with lead poisoning has dropped from was approximately 2.2% in 2000, compared to only 0.45% in 2012.

PHMDC has already been using this lower threshold for the last 2 and a half years and has been able to identify many more children as a result. When a child is identified with an elevated blood lead level, and lives in a home or apartment built before 1978, PHMDC will offer a home inspection for lead along with counseling, educational materials, and resources for financial assistance to eliminate lead hazards in their home (if they meet financial requirements).

Other encouraging news comes from the Madison Water Utility, which has completed a long term program to insure that all lead water service lines have been replaced.

This good news does not mean that we can let down our guard about the potential for lead exposure and poisoning. Even with lead-free service, some houses built before 1927 still may have lead in their internal water fixtures. Older buildings may also still use lead pipe plumbing internally.

The major source of exposure is from lead-based paint and lead contaminated dust found in homes built before 1978. Chipping or peeling paint on the walls and windowsills may contain high levels of lead. If remodeling activities in older houses do not follow well defined safety guidelines, the process could generate substantial quantities of lead dust in the home.

PHMDC recommends that all children at risk of lead poisoning be tested at 1 and 2 years of age. This is important because lead poisoning often occurs with no obvious symptoms and frequently goes unrecognized. The goal is to prevent lead exposure to children before they are harmed. Parents should call their health care provider to make an appointment for the test.

For more information on lead poisoning prevention see

For information on lead poisoning risks to children and advice on how to avoid lead exposure during remodeling projects, see the following brochures:


Public Health - Madison & Dane County


  • Jeff Golden(608) 243-0302