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Lead Paint Poisoning
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Every Month, Another Child Is Found To Have Been Poisoned By Lead

Jan 23, 2005 |

Emily Marling's son, Garrett, 4, used to beat himself on the head with his hands. He also would drop to his knees and bang his head on the floor.

Karen Dohner's son, Adam, a second-grader, is restless and has trouble focusing in class.

All three of Belinda Thomas's children, who attend elementary and middle school, have learning disabilities, such as a writing problem and difficulty communicating and remembering things.

All five children experienced lead poisoning, which might have caused or added to their health problems.

Since the late 1970s, when lead paint was banned and the phaseout of lead in gasoline began, lead poisoning of children has decreased significantly, but the problem hasn't gone away.

About one child a month is referred to the Delaware County Health Department with lead poisoning.

During 2003, 1,460 children in Delaware County under the age of six were tested for elevated levels of lead in their blood. Lead poisoning was found in 60 of those kids. Lead poisoning was later confirmed in eight of the 60 children, though more than eight were likely poisoned.

For various reasons, such as moving out of the community or parents failing to understand the importance of following up, a small number of the 60 children were brought back by parents for a second test to confirm the results.

"Lead poisoning is a quiet tragedy, but it's pervasive and very, very sad," said Mary Jean Brown, chief of the childhood lead poisoning prevention program at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, during a conference in Indianapolis in November. "The tragedy, of course, is not that children die, but that children just don't achieve their potential."

Losing IQ points

A child is considered to be lead poisoned if he or she has 10 micrograms of lead per 10 deciliters of blood, or 10 ug/dl.

"We know that children whose blood lead levels move from 10 ug/dl to 20 ug/dl lose on average about three IQ points," said Brown. "I don't know about you, but my IQ points are really important to me. That's the difference between having a bad day and a good day when you take a test."

According to Brown, data suggest there is no safe blood lead level for children.

But if the action level were reduced from 10 ug/dl to, say, 1 ug/dl, that could divert resources from children with higher levels whom officials expect to benefit more from intervention.

The main cause of lead poisoning in children is well known.

"We know it's the paint in older homes, and the older the home is, the more likely it's going to have lead paint hazards," said Maria Larson, director of the state health department's childhood lead poisoning prevention program, during the conference. "Lead still ranks as the No. 1 environmental threat to children in Indiana."

The state department of health has gathered 3,000 addresses state-wide including more than 100 in the Muncie area for older housing in which multiple children have been poisoned by lead.

The department denied a request from The Star Press for a copy of the addresses on grounds that doing so could lead to the identity of the individuals who have lead poisoning (a disease) and put the department in violation of confidentiality laws. Karen Davis, Indiana's public access counselor, found the denial did not violate the state's Access to Public Records Act.

The names and addresses of lead-poisoned children collected by the local WIC office and county health department also were denied to The Star Press because of patient confidentiality.

Residents of older homes

Childhood lead poisoning is usually caused by ingesting or inhaling dust or paint chips from deteriorating lead-based paint in older housing.

Lead can permanently affect the developing central nervous system of young children. It can produce decreased IQ, hyperactivity, decreased attention span, learning disabilities, hearing problems, fatigue, headache, crankiness, and other symptoms. The disease disproportionately impacts minorities and people living in poverty in inner cities.

But as Marling learned, it's not limited to minority, low-income, inner-city residents. She is married to a correctional officer and lives in a house that is more than a century old in the town of Albany. Her son is autistic.

"They were doing all different kinds of blood tests on him at the clinic at Riley Hospital (for Children)," Marling said. "They said they were going to run a lead test just in case. I said, 'That's one thing I know we don't have to worry about.' But they found he had an elevated level of lead. We just didn't know it was happening."

The literature Marling received from a doctor indicated headaches were one symptom of lead poisoning. She suspects lead caused her son to have severe headaches and to bang his head, a practice that stopped after his lead level decreased.

"My advice is to have your kids tested if you live in an older home," Marling said. "It's not just paint chipping, either. Lead also travels in dust around window frames. The dust collects on toys, and they lick them."

Bringing lead levels down

Dohner's child was exposed to lead in their residence in the historic East Central neighborhood of Muncie, where he and his mother still live.

"When lead paint gets old, it's very distinctive," Dohner said. "It breaks up into little squares. I scraped down and repainted all the window sills and did a lot of vacuuming, cleaning and mopping. It must've worked because his lead levels came down."

Dohner also started keeping her son out of the yard of the house next door, which had peeling lead paint on the exterior.

Lead in soil is another source of childhood lead poisoning.

"He is hyperactive," Dohner said of her son, "but that can also be inherited. I'm ADD (attention deficit disorder) myself. But his is definitely worse than mine. He can't sit still. He's always fidgeting, just really hyper all the time. He has trouble sleeping. And he does have a mild learning disability. He has a hard time focusing in class. It's hard to determine what he knows and doesn't know."

'We ended up moving'

All three of Thomas's children have learning disabilities. They were lead-poisoned in a residence near downtown Muncie some 10 years ago, when the kids were all preschoolers.

"The landlord didn't fix the problem, so we ended up moving," Thomas said. "He said it would cost too much. We were basically evicted because of lead poisoning."

At the time, Thomas, who is currently laid off, and her husband, who is disabled, were advised to put their children on a special diet.

Help is available from the Delaware County Health Department to victims of lead poisoning.

In addition, the community has a lead awareness coalition, which employs a health educator, Mary Beth Lambert, for 12 to 15 hours a week.

When the county health department learns of a lead-poisoned child, an environmental scientist and a nurse from the department typically make a visit to the home. The environmental scientist is equipped with a portable X-ray fluorescence instrument that can detect lead in paint.

"Once you get them out of that environment, the lead level will normally come down on its own," said Ann Monroe, nursing supervisor at the health department.

Sometimes, the source of the lead poisoning is not in the home of the child but in the home of a grandparent or a babysitter.

Other than removing a child from a house containing lead-based paint, options include remediation of lead hazards in the house and proper nutrition, hygiene and cleaning.

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