A prick of the fingertip is a rite of passage for most New York children. During their first six years of life, state law mandates that their blood must be regularly screened for lead exposure.
Widely used in paint, plumbing and gasoline in centuries past, lead is a neurotoxin that can cause irreversible learning impairments and behavioral problems. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has determined that no amount of exposure is safe. But one of the lingering debates within public health circles has asked what level should merit a response from a pediatrician or a health department.
In 2019, the City Council passed legislation requiring the city’s health department to follow any changes in what the CDC calls its “blood lead reference value” — essentially an indicator for when local health departments should intervene to provide treatment and cut off the source of exposure. That shift came in October, when the CDC lowered its reference value from 5 micrograms per deciliter of blood to 3.5 micrograms.
But New York City officials did not immediately adopt the new guidance, despite the legal requirement from the City Council. After nearly five months of public pressure by public health advocates, the New York City Health Department moved to adopt the CDC’s new reference level of 3.5 micrograms, according to a department spokesperson.