Blood Lead Levels in the U.S. Population

For Release July 26, 1994

Blood lead levels for Americans have dropped significantly since the late 1970’s, according to results of a national survey released by U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) Secretary, Donna E. Shalala.

Results from the latest National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) published in the Journal of the American Medical Association show that mean blood lead levels in people 1 to 74 years of age declined by 78 percent between 1978 and 1991. This decline was fairly constant across population subgroups defined by age, race and ethnicity, sex, income level, and urban status. The mean blood lead level for the U.S. population is now at 2.8 micrograms per deciliter.

“This is a public health success story,” Secretary Shalala said. “Certainly, the removal of lead from gasoline and other environmental sources is primarily responsible for these declines. But the success story is not complete. Homes and apartments built before 1980 often contain lead-based paint that can deteriorate and become hazardous.”

Secretary Shalala chairs the Interagency Task Force on Lead Poisoning Prevention through which she is working with Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary, Henry G. Cisneros, and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator, Carol M. Browner, on these remaining problems, which can be very harmful to exposed individuals.

For children aged 1-5 years, blood lead levels decreased by 76 percent from 15.0 to 3.6 micrograms per deciliter. The percent of children with blood lead levels greater than or equal to 10 micrograms declined from 88 percent to 9 percent.

Assistant Secretary for Health and Director of the U.S. Public Health Service, Philip R. Lee, said .“These results are encouraging, but we have to guard against complacency. There are still some segments of our population very much at risk. Many blacks, low income people, and urban residents are still at risk for lead exposure.”

The survey showed one-third of non-Hispanic black children living in urban areas have blood lead levels that are greater than or equal to 10 micrograms per deciliter, a blood lead level that has been shown to be associated with adverse effects in children. This pattern reflects the most serious remaining sources of lead exposure: deteriorated paint in older housing and dust and soil contaminated by paint and residues from past emissions of leaded gasoline.

A phase-out of leaded gasoline was initiated by the EPA in the 1970’s. The addition of lead to paint, which had been phased out over several decades, was eliminated in the 1970’s. However, most houses built in that decade or before contain some lead paint, flakes or dust that can be ingested by, or otherwise can expose small children. This paint can also become hazardous when haphazardly sanded or removed during remodeling.

For DHHS, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and its parent Public Health Service developed a 20-year strategic plan, announced in 1991, to identify exposed children through testing, prevent their further exposure and, when warranted, treat them to remove high levels of lead. This plan was announced with dovetailing strategic plans from HUD and EPA.

Dr. David Satcher, Director of CDC said “Unfortunately, there are still 1.5 to 2 million children who are exposed to lead levels that are potentially dangerous to their health. And future efforts to remove remaining sources of lead will be a much tougher challenge.”

NHANES was conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), in cooperation with the National Center for Environmental Health. Both organizations are part of CDC, a Public Health Service agency within DHHS.

For copies of the article, Brody DJ, Pirkle JL, Kramer RA, et al. Blood lead levels in the US population. JAMA, 272(4):277-91. 1994, contact your library.

For more information, please contact NCHS, Office of Public Affairs (301) 458-4800, or via e-mail at