EPA pick is unclear about toxic lead levels. So are scientists

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Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt testifies before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on Jan. 18. Photo by Joshua Roberts/Reuters

Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt testifies before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on Jan. 18. Photo by Joshua Roberts/Reuters

Scott Pruitt, the Oklahoma attorney general picked by President-elect Donald Trump to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, immediately drew blowback during his confirmation hearing on Wednesday for saying that he “hasn’t looked into the scientific research” on precisely how much lead exposure is unsafe for children.

Critics slammed Pruitt’s response as an uninformed and dangerously naive perspective on a critical environmental health issue. But, in fact, Pruitt’s not alone in his uncertainty on this question. There’s an ongoing debate among scientists and regulators about how much lead is too much for kids to have in their bodies.

Just this week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was scheduled to hold a meeting to discuss that very question.

That didn’t stop Democrats from using Pruitt’s quote, out of context, as a talking point:

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First, here’s what Pruitt actually said:

Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD): To continue on clean water for one moment, we’ve had significant problems with safe drinking water and clean water. Let me ask you a preliminary question: Do you believe there is any safe level of lead that can be taken into the human body, particularly a young person?

Pruitt: Senator, that’s something I’ve not reviewed, nor know about. I would be very concerned about any level of lead going into the drinking water, or obviously human consumption. I’ve not looked into the scientific research on that.

Pruitt’s statement that he would be concerned about “any level” of lead ingestion reflects the existing consensus. Both the CDC and the EPA say on their websites that there is no level of lead known to be safe in a child’s bloodstream.

But regulators have to prioritize which situations warrant a public health response; after all, barely traceable levels of lead pose a less imminent health threat to kids than higher ones. And it’s possible that the tiniest levels of lead may not be harmful for kids. Though the CDC and the EPA agree that 0.000001 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood has not been proven safe, we don’t know that it’s unsafe, either

So that’s why the CDC relies on a “reference level” of 5 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood to identify which children under age six have an elevated level of blood. That’s been the standard since 2012. Before that, the “level of concern” was 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood. The change reflects increasing awareness about the damage that can be caused by even tiny levels of lead in the blood.

And the threshold may still be shifting. Reuters reported a few weeks ago that the CDC was considering lowing the threshold by 30 percent — down to 3.5 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood — at a meeting scheduled for earlier this week.

The CDC did not immediately respond to STAT’s request for comment Wednesday afternoon on the outcome of that meeting.

All of which is to say: Pruitt probably deserves some slack on this point. We don’t know what level of lead is safe to be taken into children’s bodies, or if there even is such a threshold. And the level that warrants regulatory action is actively being debated.

But still, the critical tweets keep coming.

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This article is reproduced with permission from STAT. It was first published on Jan. 18, 2017. Find the original story here.

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