Lindsay Tanner, The Associated Press, March 1, 2009

CHICAGO (AP) – In a stunning improvement in children's health, far
fewer kids have high lead levels than 20 years ago, new government
research reports – a testament to aggressive efforts to get lead out of
paint, water and soil.

Lead can interfere with the developing
nervous system and cause permanent problems with learning, memory and
behavior. Children in poor neighborhoods have generally been more at
risk because they tend to live in older housing and in industrial areas.

researchers found that just 1.4 percent of young children had elevated
lead levels in their blood in 2004, the latest data available. That
compares with almost 9 percent in 1988.

"It has been a remarkable
decline," said study co-author Mary Jean Brown of the Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention. "It's a public health success story."

84 percent drop extends a trend that began in the 1970s when efforts
began to remove lead from gasoline. The researchers credited continuing
steps to reduce children's exposure to lead in old house paint, soil,
water and other sources.

The study was being released Monday in
the March edition of the journal Pediatrics. It is based on nearly
5,000 children, ages 1 to 5, who were part of a periodic government
health survey.

The government considers levels of at least 10
micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood to be elevated, although
research has shown that levels less than that can still cause problems
including attention and reading difficulties. There is no known "safe"
level, the study authors noted.

Caroline Cox, research director
of the Center for Environmental Health, a California-based advocacy
group, noted that lead poisoning "is entirely preventable."

no reason even one child in the United States should be poisoned by
lead," Cox said. "It's great there aren't as many now as there were,
but there are still too many."

By 2004, racial disparities among
children with blood-lead levels higher than 10 micrograms had mostly
disappeared: About equal numbers of white, black and Mexican-American
children had levels in that range.

However, disparities at lower
levels remained. For example, almost 18 percent of white children had
levels of less than 1 microgram per deciliter, versus 11 percent of
Mexican-Americans and 4 percent of blacks.

Children from lower-income families also had higher lead levels than those from wealthier families.

Bruce Lanphear, a lead specialist at Cincinnati Children's Hospital
Medical Center who wasn't involved in the government study, said lead
levels have probably continued to decline since 2004. But the findings
show "we need to still continue to be aggressive" with prevention
efforts, he said.

Lead-based paint in old housing, which can
contaminate house dust and soil, is the main source. Children also can
be exposed to lead in water, mostly from old plumbing pipes, as well as
toys and certain folk medicines.

The CDC recommends that pregnant
women and young children avoid housing built before 1978 that is
undergoing renovation. Other recommendations include regularly washing
children's hands and toys; frequent washing of floors and window sills,
where paint dust can collect; and avoiding hot tap water for drinking,
cooking and making baby formula. Hot tap water generally contains
higher lead levels from plumbing than cold water.