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By Richard Asinof
WASHINGTON – Severe budget cuts – from $29 million to $2 million, a 94 percent reduction – in funding for the Centers for Disease Control’s Childhood Lead Poisoning Program threaten the effectiveness of the R.I. Department of Health’s Lead and Healthy Homes program, according to the R.I. Childhood Lead Action Project, or CLAP.
Nationwide, about 500,000 children a year rely on this program – including 200 children in Rhode Island – newly diagnosed with lead poisoning.
If the federal budget cuts remain, Rhode Island’s childhood lead poisoning prevention program will have to seriously reduce its capacity to monitor blood lead screening and respond to every child who has an elevated blood lead level with a home inspection and referrals for medical intervention and lead remediation. Additionally, the program’s prevention efforts will likely disappear regarding proactive housing policies, community education and outreach.
While the incidence of childhood lead poisoning is declining, Rhode Island saw a disturbing increase in the number of children hospitalized for lead poisoning last year. Only one child was hospitalized in 2010, but in 2011, five were hospitalized with dangerously high levels of lead in their blood.
“Gutting childhood lead poisoning prevention programs will leave more children behind and send us on a race to the bottom – not to the top,” said Roberta Hazen Aaronson, CLAP’s executive director.
The funding cut will widen the achievement gap between white and minority students, and between wealthy and poor students, according to CLAP. High blood lead levels are associated with a decline of about 15 percent in reading and math scores. Children poisoned by lead are seven times more likely to drop out of school and six times more likely to end up in the juvenile justice system. Studies show that educating a child with lead poisoning costs an extra $38,000.
CLAP, along with advocates nationwide, is calling on President Barack Obama to seek to reverse these budget cuts.
The cuts in funding come at a time when the CDC is considering lowering the threshold of lead in a child’s blood when intervention is needed. A 2009 study of Providence kindergarten children showed that two-thirds had too much lead in their blood, when using the lower threshold for intervention. In 2011 more than 1,700 Rhode Island children tested at this lower action level, according to CLAP.