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Thousand of kids with lead poisoning won't get help

8:43 AM, Oct 2, 2012   |    comments
Betsy Berwanger, 56, and her son Zane, 1/ family photo/USA TODAY
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Thousands of U.S. children with dangerous amounts of lead in their blood may go unassisted this year because local health departments can't afford to monitor them, a survey of major cities by USA TODAY shows.

In May, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cut in half the amount of lead that should trigger medical monitoring and other actions in children younger than 6.

The CDC's action came after its scientific advisory board concluded that even small amounts of lead exposure are associated with reduced IQs, attention problems and poor academic achievement. The new guidelines mean that 450,000 kids are at risk of lead poisoning, up from 77,000.

When a child has a dangerously high blood lead level, health departments try to conduct a home inspection to locate the possible sources of lead poisoning in the child's environment and monitor the child over time to make sure his or her blood lead level improves.

But most local health departments said they can't afford to offer this service to all the children who meet the CDC's new standard, which was reduced from 10 micrograms per deciliter of lead in a child's blood to 5.

Congress cut the CDC budget for lead poisoning prevention programs by 94%, from $29 million in fiscal year 2011 to $2 million for 2012.

"We are actually going to see a reduction or even elimination in services for children at (a level of) 10 and above," said Rebecca Morley, executive director of the National Center for Healthy Housing, which works to eliminate lead poisoning. "It is very concerning because at the same time we are learning about the harmful effects of even much lower levels."

Asked about the funding shortfall, the CDC said in a statement Monday that it "remains committed to reaching the national goal of eliminating childhood lead poisoning as a public health concern by 2020" and that it will work with other federal, state and local officials to make the best use of available funds.

USA TODAY's survey of 21 city health departments shows:

• Only one city, Portland, Ore., does automatic home inspections to determine the source of a child's lead poisoning at the CDC's new poisoning level of 5.

• Twenty departments only offer home inspections at blood lead levels above 10, the old standard set in 1991, and a few do so at 20 or higher.

• Health departments in 14 cities say they have the funds for automatic educational outreach such as mailing information to families of children at the new action level. This means families in about one third of the cities might never receive educational assistance for children meeting the new standard. One city surveyed, St. Louis, sends educational material to families with children with levels of 1 or above.

The Boston Public Health Commission will begin to send information this month to families with children whose lead levels are 5 or above.

"It's better to get information to parents and educate them, and make sure their environment is lead safe," says Leon Bethune, the commission's environmental health director.

The most common sources of lead poisoning are lead-based paint, house dust, water and contaminated soil. Other sources include toys, imported spices and food or candy.

Betsy Berwanger, 56, said a nurse came to her home to educate her family about possible sources of lead after the Cincinnati Health Department found her son Zane, 1, had a blood lead level of 5.1 in June.

She said the nurse told her how lead can be tracked in the house through dirt on a person's shoes or by imported toys.

"It never would have occurred to me lead would be in the paint of children's toys," Berwanger said. Last week, Zane's latest result showed half the lead level of the test in June.

"It is almost miraculous," Berwanger said.

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