Coming soon to a community near you: Free lead screening for children ages 6 and younger. Local nonprofit environmental group the Lands Council, with the help of a nurse and funding from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), recently began making the rounds with their portable blood-testing machine, which gives results in only three minutes. This is the first time free lead screenings have been done in Spokane. This project and other EPA-funded lead screenings across the country are part of a national goal to eradicate childhood lead poisoning as a significant threat to public health by 2010.
While childhood lead poisoning in the United States has declined dramatically — from 4.7 million children ages 1 to 5 with high blood lead levels in 1978 to 250,000 in 2004 — lead exposure is still the most common environmental hazard to young children, with 6.4 percent of children ages 1 to 5 in the U.S. having a moderate or high blood level of lead, according to the EPA. Recent studies have shown that even children with blood lead levels considered to be moderate can suffer such effects as decreased IQ, behavior problems and attention deficit disorder.
The most common source of lead poisoning in the U.S. is lead-based paint, which small children ingest when they put their hands and other objects into their mouths. Though it was banned for housing use in 1978, there are still about 38 million homes in the U.S. that contain lead-based paint. Since low-income families are more likely to live in old houses with deteriorating paint, children in poor families suffer lead poisoning at a rate much higher than children from higher-income families. According to a 2000 Centers for Disease Control (CDC) report, children enrolled in Medicaid account for 60 percent of children found with high lead levels (greater than 10 mcg/dl).
Federal law requires that all Medicaid-insured children be screened for lead; however, Washington is one of the few states that have not been compliant with this law, believing that lead poisoning is not a significant risk to children in Washington and that routine screening is unnecessary.
Although the percentage of U.S. children affected by lead poisoning is small, and may occur less often here than on the East Coast where old housing is more prevalent, it is by no means insignificant and, when it does occur, can be devastating to a child’s developing brain and body.
In 2005, a 2-year-old child in Spokane’s West Central neighborhood suffered severe lead poisoning after eating lead-tainted soil outside the family’s home and was hospitalized for several days with an extremely high blood lead level. More commonly, however, lead poisoning occurs slowly over time and first presents as vague symptoms like tiredness, abdominal complaints or anemia. Continued exposure can result in learning disabilities and various other irreversible mental and physical problems. Since symptoms are so difficult to diagnose, the only way to know for sure if your child is being exposed to lead is to get him or her tested.
Here in Spokane, there are many low-income neighborhoods with a large number of old homes, which are likely to contain lead-based paint. Other possible local sources of lead exposure include the Burlington Northern industrial site in Hillyard, and lead-contaminated Spokane River beaches from Idaho to Plantes Ferry Park.
In order to find the Spokane children most at risk for lead poisoning, the Lands Council used Geographic Information System (GIS) mapping to identify neighborhoods with houses built before 1950 that are inhabited by children ages 0 to 6. These areas include West Central, East Central, Hillyard, Emerson-Garfield and Nevada-Lidgerwood. The Lands Council will be conducting free lead screenings in all high-risk communities, as well as educating parents about how to prevent future exposure.
The Lands Council’s health outreach projects are part of their overall mission to protect public health and to get the Spokane River cleaned up after a century of mining and smelting in North Idaho dumped huge amounts of lead and other toxins into the Spokane/Coeur d’Alene River system. This contamination resulted in the highest blood lead levels ever recorded being found in children in Kellogg, Idaho, in 1974.
Despite the many possible pathways for lead exposure in this area, the lead screenings so far have brought good news. Of 64 children tested, none has had high blood lead levels and only one has had a moderate level. The Lands Council’s goal is to screen at least 300 kids over the two-year period of the EPA grant; it will continue the screening if more funding becomes available.
These free lead screenings are open to the public. For more information, and for a list of upcoming lead screenings, visit http://landscouncil.org/water/reducing_lead.asp. Siarah Myron is a Lands Council member.