The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates the number of children with lead poisoning has increased dramatically, based on a new, lower threshold.

The CDC reports that in 2012, based on the previous lead poisoning threshold of 10 micrograms per deciliter of blood, an estimated 77,000 to 255,000 children ages 1 to 5 exceeded that level. The new threshold is 5 micrograms per deciliter, and the CDC now estimates more than a half-million children have lead poisoning.

Lead poisoning can cause permanent learning and behavior disorders in children. Symptoms include abdominal pain, headaches, anemia and, in severe cases, even death.

While the heavy metal is used mostly in car batteries, it can end up in other places, such as jewelry, food or water. Although lead was banned from household paint in 1978, the CDC reports that today, “at least 4 million households have children living in them that are being exposed to lead.”

Need a way to explain this to kids? The best way to find out whether something is contaminated with lead is to get it tested, as finger puppet character Expert Owl explains in this Junior Watchdogs video on lead safety for our project California Watch:

But, as the Associated Press reports, there are fewer resources to meet the demand for more testing. Last year, funding for the CDC’s lead program was cut from $29 million to $2 million. At the local level, this means cuts in funding and staff for lead poisoning prevention programs. 

Furthermore, Mary Jean Brown, an author of the CDC study, told the AP that lead counts were higher on average in children who were poor or African American.

In 2011, a California Watch investigation found high amounts of lead and other toxic substances in communities near industrial areas:

“The Martin family is among millions of Americans in similar circumstances – forced by their meager wages to live near industrial areas, including aging smokestacks, landfills, locomotives and other potential hazards. Yet because government officials make little attempt to dig deep into toxic exposure in ordinary people, it is impossible to know if they are unique or part of a much larger potential problem in hundreds of neighborhoods across the nation.”

The Martin family lives in the Southeast Los Angeles County community of Maywood, where 98 percent of the community is Latino. Watch their story here:

After 15 years of living next to a Superfund site, members of the Martin family agreed to test what toxic materials and heavy metals might be linked to their illnesses. Find their results in this interactive graphic.

Additional resources on lead safety:

Kelly Chen is a news engagement specialist at The Center for Investigative Reporting. She manages the day-to-day social media strategies and online engagement for CIR. In addition, she works to break down complex issues and ideas and create content for CIR's online communities. Kelly also works to increase engagement on cironline.org and on other online platforms. Previously, she produced discussion segments for PBS NewsHour and oversaw social media and engagement efforts for the American Graduate project, a public media initiative on the high school dropout crisis. She's also worked at Southern California Public Radio and National Geographic TV. A native of Los Angeles, she studied international relations and English at UC Davis.