Last January, the Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) kicked off its “Get Ahead of Lead” campaign to reduce lead exposure in children who live, learn, and play in the county. As we’ve seen before, lead is a powerful neurotoxin in children:
The injuries caused by lead in a developing child’s brain may be profound, or they may be subtle, but they are always permanent. We know that brain damage from lead causes lower IQ’s and other cognitive delays, learning disabilities, hearing impairments, difficulties with attention and concentration (ADHD), decreased academic achievement, and anti-social and other behavioral problems. All these effects have life-long consequences for children when they become adults, and for the rest of society.
Just by innocently playing outdoors in the dirt, drinking tap water supplied by an old lead water line, or breathing and ingesting dust and peeled chips from lead-based paints used in older homes, children are more susceptible to lead exposure and lead poisoning compared to adults:
Children are especially prone to lead poisoning because they like to play in dirt that, unbeknownst to them, may be contaminated with lead. They are also less inclined to wash their hands before putting their fingers, toys, debris (ie. paint chips), and food in their mouths. For those reasons — and because children breathe more air and drink more water per unit volume compared to adults — they are at highest risk of exposure to lead and other environmental toxics.
Older housing and old water lines are the biggest routes of exposure to lead in children in Allegheny County, where more than 80% of homes were built prior to 1978 — the year lead-based paints were banned in the United States. Last January, the ACHD mandated universal testing of all infants and toddlers living in the county. The program calls for a capillary (fingerstick) blood test for lead on two occasions: Once between 9-12 months and again at 24 months of age. Last week, ACHD director Dr. Karen Hacker shared the first annual Allegheny County Lead Report:
There is good news. I am happy to report that blood lead levels among our county’s children are, on average, going down. There are also many more children getting tested. After implementing universal lead screening on January 1 of this year and kicking off the “Get Ahead of Lead” campaign, we are on pace to see more than 23,000 children under 6 tested in Allegheny County by the end of 2018. That’s more than double the number of children tested in 2010. We’ve also added additional capacity in our Housing Program to support home-based lead investigations for any child with a lead level of 5 ug/dL and above and provided community education by working closely with local community based organizations.
The report confirms that blood levels of lead in children born in Allegheny County are going down:
The confirmed rate of elevated blood lead level for children under six in Allegheny County decreased from ≥ 6% in 2009 and 2010 to 2.1% in 2016 and 2017. This reflects the county trend for lower average childhood blood lead levels.
Don Hopey finds more good news in the report, but also an important obstacle in the county’s public health effort to reduce the burden of lead in the environment on children’s health:
The health department director, Dr. Karen Hacker, said the county has stepped up its community lead-education program and is doing additional home-based inspections whenever a child tests at or above 5 micrograms per deciliter.
Unfortunately, Dr. Hacker said, county housing inspectors are denied entrance to homes where children with high lead blood levels live 24 percent of the time.
“There’s a lot of distrust of government, or they’re worried they’ll take their children, so they don’t want a stranger in the house,” she said. “In one situation where the child had a high lead blood level, the inspector stood on the porch to interview the homeowner but wasn’t allowed inside.”
Dr. Hacker admits that ACHD’s work “is far from done.” Still, it appears that Allegheny County has taken the first and most important steps to “Get Ahead of Lead.” And that is indeed good news!