Playing on the floor of her Flint, Michigan, home, 8-year-old Nadia Baylor suddenly grows serious when she talks about the water. “The water is poison,” she says unflinchingly. Baylor’s story, as reported by CNN, spotlights the lead-tainted drinking water crisis that has become synonymous with her hometown. Sadly, it may soon be a common story outside Flint as well.
Since taking office, the Trump administration has proposed changes to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that undercut lead abatement programs and profoundly affect the lives of all Americans. However, young children will feel these proposed changes most acutely. Nowhere is this clearer than in the Trump administration’s plan to dismantle programs that protect children from lead exposure.
Children are more likely than adults to be exposed to lead and more vulnerable to its effects
Lead is a neurotoxin that impairs central nervous system function when ingested, absorbed through the skin, or inhaled. Although it’s common to think of lead as lurking in aging water pipes, flaking house paint, and industrial emissions, children can be exposed to lead before birth, when their developing brains are most at risk. If a woman has been exposed to lead, her bones can store it for decades, releasing it into her bloodstream and her developing fetus’s body during pregnancy.
Once born, babies can swallow lead in contaminated food, water, breast milk, dust, and dirt. In fact, activity that is developmentally appropriate for babies—crawling on the floor, putting new objects into their mouths—makes them more likely than adults to consume dangerous levels of lead, especially in homes containing lead-based paints.
In addition to being more likely than adults to ingest lead, children absorb several times more lead than adults. Most lead that adults ingest—about 99 percent—leaves the body as waste in a matter of days. In contrast, children excrete only 32 percent of the lead they swallow.
The impact of lead on children’s development is devastating
Once consumed, the effects of lead on children’s growth, behavior, and cognitive performance poses a serious public health concern. Research has linked early childhood lead exposure to a range of negative outcomes such as lower IQ scores and behavior problems in childhood, for example, inattentiveness, hyperactivity, and aggression. These behavioral problems can lay the ground for future consequences, including school suspension and even incarceration. Perhaps most troubling is that lead is more common in older homes where people of color, immigrants, refugees, and lower-income families tend to live. This pattern of increased exposure to lead reinforces disparities that already exist in early childhood. However, the effects of lead on children’s development persist even after controlling for these risk factors.
For example, a 2013 study demonstrated that even students with low blood lead levels—below the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines for “blood lead level of concern”—during early childhood were less likely than students with no discernable blood level levels (BLL) to reach proficiency in standardized tests in elementary and middle school. This effect held even after taking into account risk factors such as race, maternal education, and family socio-economic status.
The significance of these findings is twofold. First, this study shows that the effects of early lead exposure lasts years: Children’s BLL levels were collected from birth to age 6, but the impact of early lead exposure persisted through early adolescence. Second, this study also shows that even low levels of lead negatively affect children’s development. This last finding underscores a point many physicians and public health specialists have raised: The only truly safe level of lead in children’s bodies is zero.
Trump’s plan guts federal programs that reduce children’s lead exposure, undercutting decades of progress
Scientists have studied the adverse health effects of lead for decades, and their research has led to stronger regulatory protections. The CDC has found that blood lead levels have declined over the past 30 years, most likely due to coordinated efforts by governments, health care, and social service providers. However, President Donald Trump’s proposed changes to the EPA will slash funds for two federal programs that protect children from lead exposure, a move that threatens to reverse decades of public health improvements.
The first program to be cut, the Lead Risk Reduction Program, educates Americans about how to reduce lead exposure in their homes and certifies renovators who work in buildings that may contain lead-based paints. Trump’s plan cuts funding for the program by $2.5 million and nearly 73 full-time employees. Moreover, Trump’s plan nearly eliminates a second program that gives funds to state and tribal organizations to develop their own lead abatement and renovation education programs. All of this is in addition to cuts in Department of Housing and Urban Development Agency (HUD) programs that make housing safer by updating aging infrastructure, including replacing older pipes and safely removing or painting over lead-based paint.
Beyond cuts to these two lead-paint programs, Trump’s plans for the EPA also include reducing funding and staff for the agency’s drinking water programs. Indeed, the EPA is looking to decrease grants that help states monitor public water systems from $102 million to $71 million. Currently, the nation’s public water infrastructure still contains between 3.3 million and 10 million lead pipes that can leach lead into tap water, which makes events such as the Flint, Michigan, water crisis more likely to happen again.
Proponents of the funding cuts—including representatives from the EPA—argue that the goal is to return funding responsibility to state and local entities, a move they believe will improve program implementation. However, only 14 states currently run programs to train contractors how to properly handle renovations involving lead paint. The rest rely on federal programs to provide training, meaning that Trump’s plan would leave children in dozens of states unprotected.
President Trump claims to support families and the working class. However, his cuts to the EPA threaten the health of all Americans, especially lower-income families living in older homes with lead-based paints. Although Congress will have to approve the proposed cuts for them to take effect, the message they send is worrying. Trump’s EPA changes—and specifically his plans that undercut programs to prevent lead exposure—will have tremendous costs for the youngest Americans. If he wants to protect the United States’ future and put America first, Trump needs to support programs that protect children’s health.
Cristina Novoa is a policy analyst for Early Childhood Policy at the Center for American Progress.