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Firearms Promote Lead Exposure

Disproportional Harm in Children

Firearms Promote Lead Exposure

By John Salak –

Lead poisoning or exposure in children has been a significant health concern in the United States for years. In fact, C.S. Children’s Hospital at the University of Michigan reports that over two percent of children ages one to five have unsafe blood lead levels.

Most of this exposure comes from paint and water. A new study, however, now identifies that the lead in firearms is a surprising additional source of exposure that may disproportionately harm children.

Researchers at Brown University specifically found an association between household firearm ownership and elevated lead levels in children’s blood in 44 states, even when controlling for other major lead exposure sources. Admittedly, lead exposure from firearms is far less explored than from other recognized sources like water or lead-based paint. But it may be equally dangerous for children’s health, according to the study’s lead author Christian Hoover, a Ph.D. candidate at Brown’s School of Public Health.

“This is very concerning because we don’t have a system of monitoring lead from firearm use, as we do with residential paint, and there is no system in place to minimize or prevent children’s exposure to lead in firearms,” Hoover said. “Firearm use is a relatively unchecked source of childhood exposure to lead. There’s currently no way to stop the exposure from happening and no interventions when it does.”

Ultimately, he noted that the association between elevated lead levels and firearm use was almost as strong as the association for lead-based paint.

Lead levels in children in the United States have been persistently high for decades, even though public health measures are in place to prevent or at least reduce childhood lead poisoning from paint and drinking water. Ultimately, blood lead levels haven’t concordantly dropped in significant measures over this time, Hoover said.

The impact over time is almost staggering. More than 170 million Americans alive today are estimated to have been exposed to high lead levels in early childhood, several million of whom were exposed to five-plus times the current reference level, according to the National Academy of Sciences.

Lead exposure from firearms occurs when a gun is discharged that uses lead-based ammunition and primer, which are the most common form used in the United States, Hoover said. The lead dust settles on clothes and personal items, such as phones or bags, as well as in vehicles and common spaces. Children are more vulnerable to lead than adults due to their tendency to ingest contaminants through normal hand-to-mouth behaviors.

“Typically, the places where the firearm-related lead collects, such as in carpets, are places where young children spend a considerable amount of time,” said Hoover.

Researchers used a widely accepted proxy measure developed by the RAND Corporation to estimate state levels of household gun ownership since there is no governmental database covering firearm ownership across states. This metric combines data on firearm suicides, hunting licenses, subscriptions to Guns and Ammo magazine and background checks.

The Brown team then compared the data from the proxy measure with reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of blood lead concentration surveillance data for children under 6. The analysis spanned six years between 2012 and 2018.

The study estimates that for every 10 percent increase in the number of households that report owning a gun, there is an approximate 30 percent increase in cases of elevated pediatric blood lead levels.

Lead exposure in children increases their risk of behavioral problems, reducing cognitive abilities and resulting in poor growth and development. There is no safe level of lead exposure, noted Joseph Braun, a professor of epidemiology and director of the Center for Children’s Environmental Health at Brown.

“Despite public health efforts to prevent or reduce childhood lead exposure, a substantial proportion of U.S. children are still exposed,” Braun said. “Thus, we need to identify other modifiable sources of lead exposure in children’s environments to protect their developing bodies and brains.”





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