Lead Toxicity

The Question

Why does Health Canada continue to maintain its blood lead intervention level of 10 μg/dL when the ministry has financed recent studies and reports that show there is no safe level of lead exposure?

The Background

Exposure to lead, at both high and low levels, is linked to multiple illnesses. Researchers have found that “at extremely elevated levels, lead can lead to seizures and ultimately death. At low levels of lead exposure, there is a large body of evidence to demonstrate that lead is associated with a number of different neurological and developmental outcomes” (Archbold and Bassil, 2014: 3). Small children are the most vulnerable, as lead can interfere with the production of blood cells and the development of the heart, brain, and nervous system, which in turn can cause permanent learning and behaviour disorders.

A 2013 report issued by Health Canada acknowledges that there is a clear gap between Canada’s current threshold for taking action in individuals exposed to lead, and the latest scientific evidence of lead’s toxicity. The current blood intervention level in Canada is set at 10 micrograms per decilitre, however, Health Canada states that “There is sufficient evidence that blood lead levels below 5 μg/dL are associated with adverse health effects” (Health Canada, 2013a: 59). Health practitioners are currently working without clear guidelines that reflect this new evidence. Will Health Canada clarify its position to ensure the health and safety of Canadians?

Your Letter:

Dear Dr. Rasmussen, Dr. Jiping Zhu, and Dr. Suzanne Beauchemin,

Thank you for your research as scientists with Health Canada. We are especially interested in your studies investigating lead, mercury, and cadmium contamination in household dust in Canadian homes, which found “significantly higher concentrations” inside homes than in the soil outdoors. While Canadians can be reassured that blood lead levels have declined significantly from the 1980s with the phasing out of leaded gas, there is still a great deal of ambiguity in regards to what is considered a safe level of lead exposure.

We are particularly interested in how your research engages with the World Health Organization’s conclusion that there are no safe levels of lead (WHO 2010: 11-12). A 2013 report issued by Health Canada confirmed that a series of studies “clearly document adverse health effects – including neurodevelopmental, neurodegenerative, cardiovascular, renal and reproductive effects – at blood lead levels below 10 micrograms per decilitre (µg/dL), the current Canadian blood intervention level” (Health Canada, 2013b: 4). The report goes on to state that there “is sufficient evidence that blood lead levels below 5 µg/dL are associated with adverse health effects,” and that “adverse health effects have also been associated with blood lead levels as low as 1-2 µg/dL” (4). By funding and issuing this 2013 health report, Canada was poised to be the first country to recognize the full significance of this new evidence by formulating new standards, policies, and practices to further prevent children from being exposed to lead. Unfortunately, such efforts were stalled and now Health Canada is in this contradictory position of having an outdated policy that does not coincide with current scientific evidence or with the health policies of other countries.

Based on this new evidence, the Centers of Disease Control (CDC) in the United States cut their accepted blood lead level in half, moving from an intervention level of 10 µg/dL to 5 µg/dL (www.cdc.gov/nceh/lead/). But Health Canada, despite this evidence and the actions on the part of other countries to lower their levels of acceptability, has failed to issue lower thresholds.

Based on your expertise, we would like to know:

  • What does your research indicate about threshold doses at which lead becomes harmful to children?
  • Does your research support a particular dose, or even the concept of acceptable doses?
  • Are children at risk of harm if their blood lead level is below the current intervention level of 10 μg/dL?
  • In your opinion, does Health Canada’s current policy put Canadians at risk?

I am writing this email as part of Write2Know (http://write2know.ca), a letter-writing campaign that aims to mobilize public awareness and inquiry into federal research programs. We want to let you know that we value federal science and scientists, and that our questions arise out of genuine concerns about the health and well-being of Canadians.

We remain concerned about the legacy of constraints on access to federal scientists and the results of their research, the elimination of essential research programs, and the closure of libraries and archives. These constraints and closures have impacted what Canadians can and cannot know about the health of their bodies, communities, and environments. We are hopeful that a new government will address our concerns.

We are posing questions to federal scientists about their research and findings, and forwarding our letters to federal Ministers and Members of Parliament to call attention to serious gaps between scientific evidence and government policy.

We look forward to your response.

Sincerely,

[Your name]

cc
Dr Pat Rasmussen, Research Scientist, Environmental & Occupational Toxicology Division, Health Canada
Dr. Jiping Zhu, Research Scientist, Health Canada
Dr. Suzanne Beauchemin, Research Scientist, Natural Resources Canada
Hon. Jane Philpott, Minister of Health
Hon. Navdeep Bains, Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development
Hon. Kristy Duncan, Minister of Science
Hon. Jim Carr, Minister of Natural Resources

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Add your Signature to the Letter on Lead Toxicity

Dear Federal Scientists and Ministers,

cc
Dr. Jiping Zhu, Research Scientist, Health Canada
Dr. Suzanne Beauchemin, Research Scientist, Natural Resources Canada
Hon. Jane Philpott, Minister of Health
Hon. Navdeep Bains, Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development
Hon. Kristy Duncan, Minister of Science
Hon. Jim Carr, Minister of Natural Resource

Thank you for your research as scientists with Health Canada. We are especially interested in your studies investigating lead, mercury, and cadmium contamination in household dust in Canadian homes, which found “significantly higher concentrations” inside homes than in the soil outdoors. While Canadians can be reassured that blood lead levels have declined significantly from the 1980s with the phasing out of leaded gas, there is still a great deal of ambiguity in regards to what is considered a safe level of lead exposure.

We are particularly interested in how your research engages with the World Health Organization’s conclusion that there are no safe levels of lead (WHO 2010: 11-12). A 2013 report issued by Health Canada confirmed that a series of studies “clearly document adverse health effects – including neurodevelopmental, neurodegenerative, cardiovascular, renal and reproductive effects – at blood lead levels below 10 micrograms per decilitre (µg/dL), the current Canadian blood intervention level” (Health Canada, 2013b: 4). The report goes on to state that there “is sufficient evidence that blood lead levels below 5 µg/dL are associated with adverse health effects,” and that “adverse health effects have also been associated with blood lead levels as low as 1-2 µg/dL” (4). By funding and issuing this 2013 health report, Canada was poised to be the first country to recognize the full significance of this new evidence by formulating new standards, policies, and practices to further prevent children from being exposed to lead. Unfortunately, such efforts were stalled and now Health Canada is in this contradictory position of having an outdated policy that does not coincide with current scientific evidence or with the health policies of other countries.

Based on this new evidence, the Centers of Disease Control (CDC) in the United States cut their accepted blood lead level in half, moving from an intervention level of 10 µg/dL to 5 µg/dL (www.cdc.gov/nceh/lead/). But Health Canada, despite this evidence and the actions on the part of other countries to lower their levels of acceptability, has failed to issue lower thresholds.

Based on your expertise, we would like to know:

What does your research indicate about threshold doses at which lead becomes harmful to children? Does your research support a particular dose, or even the concept of acceptable doses? Are children at risk of harm if their blood lead level is below the current intervention level of 10 μg/dL? In your opinion, does Health Canada’s current policy put Canadians at risk?

I am writing this email as part of Write2Know (http://write2know.ca), a letter-writing campaign that aims to mobilize public awareness and inquiry into federal research programs. We want to let you know that we value federal science and scientists, and that our questions arise out of genuine concerns about the health and well-being of Canadians.

We remain concerned about the legacy of constraints on access to federal scientists and the results of their research, the elimination of essential research programs, and the closure of libraries and archives. These constraints and closures have impacted what Canadians can and cannot know about the health of their bodies, communities, and environments. We are hopeful that a new government will address our concerns.

We are posing questions to federal scientists about their research and findings, and forwarding our letters to federal Ministers and Members of Parliament to call attention to serious gaps between scientific evidence and government policy.

We look forward to your response.

Sincerely,

[signature]

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More Information

Archbold and Bassil, 2014. Health Impacts of Lead in Drinking Water. Toronto Public Health.

Brown MJ and Margolis S. 2012. Lead in drinking water and human blood lead levels in the United States. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Supplement 61. August 10, 2012.

Bushnik T, Haines D, Levallois P, Levesque J, Van Oostdam J and Viau C. (2010) Lead and bisphenol A concentrations in the Canadian population. Statistics Canada.

Health Canada, 2013a. Final Human Health State of the Science Report on Lead.

Health Canada, 2013b. Risk Management Strategy for Lead. February 2013.

Carly Weeks, “House dust: toxic and on your table”, The Globe and mail, December 27, 2007.

 

 

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