Pediatricians and public-health advocates are working to revive programs to protect children from lead poisoning, after what they describe as a series of devastating blows to their efforts.
Congress all but eliminated federal funding to prevent lead poisoning in 2012, cutting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's lead budget by more than 90%. There is no safe level of lead, the CDC estimates that 535,000 American kids have enough lead in their blood to put them at high risk for lead poisoning, which causes intellectual impairments and behavioral problems.
Although lead is no longer used in gasoline or paint, many children are still exposed by living in old housing with peeling paint. USA TODAY also has documented the hazards to children from shuttered lead smelting factories, which left layers of lead in backyards and playgrounds across the USA.
"It's like they're declaring victory in a war that has not been won," says Jerome Paulson, a professor at the George Washington University School of Medicine, who chairs the American Academy of Pediatrics' committee on environmental health.
The American Academy of Pediatrics is circulating a petition among its members, asking them to urge national leaders to restore funding to prevent lead poisoning. The academy expects to send the petition - addressed to President Obama, CDC Director Thomas Frieden and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius - later this month.
Children's advocates say they're also concerned that an influential CDC lead-prevention committee is being demoted, buried too far down in the federal bureaucracy to have any influence over public policy.
Last year, that committee led the CDC to revise its "action level" for lead in 2012, cutting in half the level of lead exposure that should prompt doctors to closely monitor children and take other actions, such as looking for and removing sources of lead in their homes.
Yet that historic change has had little to no practical effect, according to a July report from the National Center for Healthy Housing. Instead of treating more children, state and local health departments have been forced to make deep cuts to their lead-poisoning prevention efforts.
Federal funding for the lead program fell from $29.3 million in fiscal year 2011 to less than $2 million in fiscal year 2012.
The federal sequestration further cut funds for lead-control efforts, shrinking the budget to $1.8 million, according to the CDC.
Frieden has asked Congress to boost that funding to $5 million for fiscal year 2014. That budget is not yet final.
Children's health advocates say the CDC is also silencing its independent group of lead experts, the Advisory Committee for Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention.
Under a "planned restructuring," the influential advisory group will become a subcommittee of the board of scientific counselors at the National Center for Environmental Health, one of the centers that make up the CDC.
In the future, the lead advisory committee - which formerly reported directly to Frieden and Sebelius - could be overruled by the board of scientific counselors, whose primary task is typically to oversee external peer review of agency programs, says Rebecca Morley,executive director of the National Center for Healthy Housing, an advocacy group that works on preventing lead poisoning.
"The committee is in essence being disbanded," said advisory committee member Megan Sandel, associate professor of pediatrics and public health at Boston University's Schools of Medicine and Public Health. "The move itself strips the committee of all its scientific strength and credibility. I truly believe this is about silencing a committee. Without this being an official federal advisory committee, the CDC and HHS do not have to answer or respond to any of our advice. These committees were designed to be above politics and this move would strip our ability to speak and protect America's children."
Bernadette Burden, a spokeswoman for the CDC, says the advisory committee will remain the agency's "go-to group" on lead-poisoning prevention.
The CDC's commitment to protecting children from lead has not changed, Burden says.
"Preventing lead poisoning and eliminating lead in a child's environment, that is still our first priority," she says.