The most common way children are exposed to lead these days is from the lead-based paint almost universally found in homes built before 1980. (Lead-based paint was outlawed in the late ’70s.)
When the paint deteriorates and chips, it causes dust particles that can be inhaled or even eaten (think slobbery teething toy belonging to a 10-month-old on the floor next to an old baseboard covered in lead-based paint).
In some West Virginia counties, as many as 86 percent of the homes were built before 1980, according to the 2000 U.S. Census. Poverty compounds exposure risk; fixing paint is expensive.
But the Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program, which essentially just tests and monitors children under the age of 6 for elevated blood levels (and provides medical care when necessary), seems to be making a difference. From 1997 to 2013, elevated blood lead levels in children under the age of 6 have dropped from 2.26 percent to .37 percent of the population.
(Last year, the CDC redefined “acceptable blood lead levels” from 10 micrograms to 5 micrograms per deciliter.)
But for those in the .37 percent, the experience of having a child test high on blood lead levels can be both confusing and terrifying.
“Our experience was with my child who’s almost 5 so it’s been awhile,” said Kelly Reindel-Swan, of Ohio County. “But we just had the standard one-year blood test for lead levels.”
The Reindel-Swans lived in an old home (more than 100 years old). Even though their daughter never had symptoms of lead exposure and their home was in good condition, the 15-month-old tested high.
Reindel-Swan was shocked and immediately began implementing steps to decrease family exposure, such as increasing handwashing, taking off shoes when entering the home and cleaning with disposable wipes (to lessen the chance of cross-contamination).
Testing for Lead Poisoning
In a recent interview, West Virginia Commissioner of Health Rahul Gupta said lead poisoning often causes no initial symptoms. Its complications generally arise later and include behavior or attention problems, hearing problems, reduced IQ, slowed body growth, aggressive behavior, hearing loss and infertility, among other things.
Through the government program, children are tested at primary care facilities for elevated blood lead levels at 1 and 2 years of age. Results are reported to the state and high-risk counties are monitored closely. In West Virginia, those include Brooke, Lewis, Mineral, Monongalia, Ohio, Roane and Wirt.
A few years after Reindel-Swan’s daughter was found to have lead in her blood, her nephew, a boy belonging to her younger brother Danny, also tested high. A state employee came to their home to figure out where the contamination was coming from.
“She found in our house, what she basically already knew because she has tested so many houses, and that’s that all the woodwork had been painted with a lead-based enamel, and also everything on the exterior of the house,” Swan said.
The tester explained that lead-based paint used to be the best paint available – it was incredibly durable – and so it was used to cover interior woodwork and anything on the outside of the house.
“And that’s problematic because your woodwork is the stuff that’s constantly abraded – you have wooden windows that are sliding up and down, so you have paint dust coming off of them all the time, doors where they rub on the top of the door against the door jam, and then the exterior of the house obviously tends to chip a lot anywhere it is exposed to weather,” Swan explained.
An Expensive Problem
In some West Virginia counties, as many as 86 percent of the homes were built before 1980, according to the 2000 US Census. Poverty compounds exposure risk; fixing paint is expensive.
“We were so fortunate to have the time and resources to address the problem and the problems were relatively small and easy to deal with,” Reindel-Swan said.
She explained that her family ended up replacing all the windows in their home – an expense they would not have been able to manage had family members not been able to step in and provide financial assistance. Although a state lead tester came to her home, the state was unable to provide monetary assistance for remediation.
“I know so many families who even shy away from having their kids tested because they are terrified that they won’t be able to fix the problems because of the expense especially,” she said. “It’s a big issue in older homes.”
Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, with support from the Benedum Foundation.