Childhood Lead Poisoning: Permanent but Preventable

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Finger testing

Contributing Writer
Chautauqua County Department of Health

“Lead poisoning causes permanent damage to children, but lead poisoning is also highly preventable. That we continue to have lead poisoned children in our community is indefensible.” states Chautauqua County Health Department Healthy Communities Consultant Lisa Schmidtfrerick-Miller.

Thousands of studies over the last 30 years have confirmed the dangerous effects of lead, especially on the developing brains of children. Lead exposure decreases IQ, causes behavior issues like ADHD, and damages learning and memory abilities, among many other effects. Once a child is lead poisoned, the damage is irreversible.

New York State Department of Health (NYSDOH) data shows Chautauqua County as having among the highest rates of lead poisoned children in New York State. The County’s old housing stock and the numbers of properties in poor condition are largely to blame.

Brent Sheldon Testing For Lead
Photos Courtesy of Don Zinteck Photographics

Lead Program Coordinator Natalie Whiteman explains that: “Lead-based paint was completely banned for use in housing in 1978, but 81 percent of all housing units in the County and 91% in the City of Jamestown were built before 1978.”

“Almost all houses built before 1978 contain at least some lead paint, but it is the deterioration of this paint that exposes kids to lead dust,” explains Ms. Whiteman. “Locally, deteriorating lead paint is by far the leading source of exposure, and it only takes a tiny bit of lead dust to poison a child.”

Other potential sources of childhood lead exposure are soils contaminated by leaded gasoline or paint, some imported spices, cheap toys, some cosmetics, and even some imported candy. Occupational exposure of a parent or caregiver, who may bring lead dust home on clothing or shoes, is also a possible source.

While some communities like Flint, Michigan have experienced high levels of lead in their water, it is has not been the case that water is a source of exposure in Chautauqua County. Municipal supplies are regularly tested for lead, and while lead can potentially leach from old pipes, the water must have sat in the pipe for over six hours. Running the tap for about 30-60 seconds clears it, as does flushing a toilet or starting a load of laundry before using tap water for drinking.

A simple blood test will reveal the level of lead in the bloodstream, with lead levels measured as micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood, or ug/dL. Following recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control, New York State recently moved the action level from 15 ug/dL down to 5 ug/dL.

Lead Testing Gun with Positive Reading
Photos Courtesy of Don Zinteck Photographics

“Now, at a level of 5 or over, we will be required to investigate for sources of exposure, assist with eliminating the exposure, and provide a registered nurse to work with the family on nutritional supports and medical care, if needed, until the child’s blood lead level falls below the 5 ug/dL threshold,” says Ms. Whiteman.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the American Academy of Pediatrics, there is no “safe” level of lead, but there is enough data showing impairment occurring at levels of 5 ug/dL to make a case for taking action to prevent further damage.

Within Chautauqua County, the highest rates of children with excessive levels of lead in their blood are in Jamestown, although the problem exists countywide. In 2018, 162 children in Chautauqua County tested over 5 micrograms per deciliter; 98 of those children resided in the City of Jamestown.

“That is a lot of children potentially facing lower IQ, learning problems, and behavior problems,” notes Ms. Schmidtfrerick-Miller. “It’s important to remember that this is happening year after year. Every year, between 70 and 100 children in Jamestown are found to have high lead levels, so the impact on the school system and in particular on special education services is significant.”

Studies show that children exposed to lead may also face employment challenges later in life, along with increased risk for mental health and substance abuse issues. They may have issues with aggression, anger management, and physical health problems as well. Ms. Schmidtfrerick-Miller emphasizes that: “You start to understand that lead poisoning is a challenge that affects the entire community.”

Ms. Whiteman concurs, and adds: “To some extent, this is a generational problem and a problem across the lifespan. Individuals who were lead poisoned as children have impulse-control issues that continue into adulthood. Lead in a pregnant woman can pass through the placenta and negatively impact a child even before birth. In adults, lead can cause brain, kidney, and cardiovascular damage.”

New York State Department of Health requires testing all children at ages one and two. During these years children are getting more active crawling, putting items in their mouths, playing on the floor, pulling themselves up on windowsills – all things that can expose a child to lead dust. Despite this requirement, NYSDOH data shows that about one-third of children in Chautauqua County are not being tested as required.

“Our local pediatricians do an excellent job of making every effort to get children in for testing at ages one and two, but families, especially in lower income levels, move and change phone numbers often,” Says Ms. Whiteman. “According to the CDC, young children living in poverty or who reside in older housing have a higher risk of lead exposure, and we have both factors at play in this community.”

Another challenge with getting children tested is that lead dust is practically invisible, damage being done to a developing brain is invisible, and the impacts of lead poisoning are not immediately obvious. The County Health Department is considering ways to increase testing rates, including taking a testing kit to onsite locations in the community.

“People don’t fully understand the importance of getting their child tested, and it is easy to to dismiss, especially when family lacks transportation or other resources, explains Ms. Schmidtfrerick-Miller. “Our highest-risk children are probably also the least likely to get tested at both one and two years of age, meaning the numbers of lead poisoned children may be significantly higher than we think.”

The Chautauqua County Health Department is one of 14 recipients across New York State of a Childhood Lead Poisoning Primary Prevention Program (CLPPPP). The program allows certified lead risk assessors to test any home where a child under the age of 6 is present at least 6 hours per week. If lead paint is found, the property owner is required to stabilize any deteriorating lead paint, work which must be done by someone certified to do that work.
Typically, doors and windows are the main culprit of lead paint dust, due to the fact that they are friction surfaces and also prone to deterioration from weather-related exposure like moisture and temperature changes.

“We assist the property owners as much as we can, by providing free EPA-approved classes for contractors, other classes for homeowners, all the supplies needed to safely and effectively eliminate the lead hazard like plastic sheeting, tape, paint, cleaning supplies, and more,” says Ms. Whiteman.

Once a lead hazard has been identified, it must be fixed. Penalties of up to $12,000 may be placed on landlords for failing to make the necessary repairs. Doing the work without the appropriate certification could result in EPA fines of up to $32,500.

Past programs have provided resources for more permanent solutions like replacement windows and doors. The program paid 80% of the cost, with the property owner responsible for the remainder. County representatives are hopeful that the program will be available again soon.

The County Health Department also receives funding specifically to provide case management to children testing at higher levels of lead, and a grant from Univera has allowed expansion of the CLPPP work across Chautauqua County.

Eliminating exposure to lead dust in housing could nearly eliminate the problem of childhood lead poisoning in the community. In the 1990s, Rochester, New York, had staggering numbers of children with high blood lead levels. A coalition of community stakeholders formed to address the issue, and while it’s taken a few decades, the rate of lead poisoned children there has decreased by 85 percent. Credit for the decrease goes largely to an ordinance requiring lead inspections in rental housing as a condition of getting a certificate of occupancy.

A local coalition is coming together to address not only lead, but other housing issues in the County. The Healthy Housing Task Force was formed last year to identify, discuss, and ultimately act to improve housing conditions in the community.

Schmidtfrerick-Miller feels strongly about the need to address housing quality. “Our housing issues go beyond lead poisoning. Deteriorating housing and continued disinvestment by property owners across Jamestown and across Chautauqua County has resulted in decreasing property values, neighborhoods in decay, housing instability, and health and safety issues.”

“This truly does impact the entire community in one way or another, and it will require the community coming together to find the methods and the means to stop this decline. Protecting children from the irreversible damage that lead poisoning causes is the very least we can do.”

For more information on the Chautauqua County Lead Poisoning Prevention Programs, visit http://www.co.chautauqua.ny.us/253/Lead-Poisoning-Prevention, or call 716-753-4481.