Gov. Tom Wolf proposed Wednesday that every Pennsylvania child under age 2 be tested for lead poisoning.

Lancaster lead poisoning one of the highest in U.S.

He called on the Department of Health to work with the General Assembly and community partners to draft legislation to require universal testing statewide.

Pennsylvania has one of the highest incidents of child lead poisoning in the country, far worse than the rate in Flint, Mich. In Lancaster County, at least 11 percent of children tested were found to have elevated lead in their system in recent years.

Even small amounts of lead in children can cause serious cognitive, learning and behavioral issues for the rest of their life.

Sources of lead can be old paint, plumbing fixtures and water.

This is an excellent idea that will help protect children in Pennsylvania," said Susan Eckert, executive director of the Partnership for Public Health. “Universal testing is a requirement in other states, like Maryland. It would identify children who have lead poisoning but were never suspected to have it." 

“We need to be able to identify all children who have elevated blood-lead levels in order make sure their families have access to the services they need,” Wolf said. “Only with universal testing will we know the true scope of lead poisoning in Pennsylvania and be able to refer affected children for care.”

Less than 30 percent of children under 2 years of age have been tested for lead, according to the state Department of Health’s 2015  report on lead, the latest data available.

Testing rates vary greatly from county to county in 2015, ranging from 12 percent of children to 47 percent.

Only 16 percent of Lancaster County children were tested for lead in 2015. And the county has the fourth highest population of children 2 years of age and younger in the state, some 14,500 children in that age range.

"I think people should recognize by doing nothing about this problem we are decreasing the intellectual ability of thousands of children in Pennsylvania," said Dr. Marilyn Howarth, an environmental toxicology physician at the University of Pennsylvania.

“Universal testing will address the gaps in childhood lead testing data, which will help us develop and implement a comprehensive lead-poisoning prevention strategy in Pennsylvania,” said Dr. Rachel Levine, acting secretary of health and physician general.

“In the meantime, we encourage parents to talk to their pediatricians about the risk factors and ask that their child be tested. It is essential to learn the facts and your individual risks to prevent lead poisoning because any level of lead detected in your child’s blood is too high,” Levine said.

“We should be testing houses to find the sources of lead, not using children as canaries to find out the source of lead,” Eckert said. “But with the testing rates so low, the results will surely show that it is a problem here."

The Department of Health administers the Lead Hazard Control Program, which provides funding to local partners to contract with certified lead professionals to remove lead hazards.

Community health nurses provide education to parents and also help monitor children whose lead levels are identified as high. The department also operates a toll-free lead information line, 1-800-440-LEAD (5323), to provide information and referrals for concerned parents or professionals.