Children in Lancaster County are being poisoned by lead at one of the highest rates in the country, putting them at risk for lower intelligence, behavior problems, personality disorders and even jail, a new study revealed.
The findings alarmed public health advocates here, who say the rate is likely higher because of concentrated pockets of poverty. And they sparked new calls for action at a time when the state Department of Health discontinued funding for lead testing.
"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.
"We are allowing children to lose IQ points and move out of the normal range of intelligence. They may need special education and not be able to care for themselves," said Howarth, who has worked with the Lancaster Lead Coalition.
Most experts agreed, the likely culprit is leaded paint that can exist as a fine micro dust in older houses.
1 in 10 children at risk
The study, published Thursday in the Journal of Pediatrics, found that 8 percent of children under the age of 6 in Pennsylvania had seriously elevated levels of lead in their blood, 5 or more micrograms per deciliter.
The state ranks second among all 50 states in the rate of lead poisoning; its rate is more than double the national average, which is 3 percent.
The results in Lancaster and York counties are even more troubling to public health experts. More than one in ten children here — 11 percent — were found to have 5 or more micrograms of lead in their system, ranking the county 16th worst in the nation.
In York County, 14 percent of the children tested had seriously high levels of lead.
"This is outrageous and very disturbing that we would have such a high rate," said Susan Eckert, executive director of the Partnership for Public Health, a countywide group focused on health issues and public safety.
Eckert said not enough children are being tested. She thinks the problem could be worse in Lancaster County than the most recent research shows.
“There's a clear link between kids in poverty and lead levels because poorer children tend to live in older houses that may still have lead paint or even lead dust,” Eckert said. “But as many as half of the children who live in poverty live out in the county, and places like Columbia, Manheim, Mount Joy and other small towns and boroughs have concentrated areas of older housing stock that is putting people and kids at risk.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, no level of lead is safe. But a level of 5 or more micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood in young children is considered extremely serious.
The six-year study is believed to be the largest of its kind. Quest Diagnostics conducted an analysis of more than 5 million blood tests in all 50 states. It analyzed the results of 190,843 blood tests in Pennsylvania, compared to 140,524 analyzed by the state itself for its most recent report, in 2014.
The Department of Health’s findings from that year showed only 1 percent of children statewide with elevated blood lead levels, and 8.5 percent of Lancaster County children with elevated blood lead levels. Lancaster ranked fourth-worst among Pennsylvania’s 67 counties.
Efforts to educate, treat
Lead ingestion by children has long been connected to learning and language delays, poor test scores, behavioral problems like hyperactivity and aggression, even an increase in incarceration later in life.
Howarth said every parent — especially those who live in homes that were built before 1979, when lead was removed from paint — should get their children tested for lead.
"It's a very easy blood test, it's very accurate and most insurances cover it," she said.
Bills in the House and Senate would mandate lead testing for young children, change the procedures for testing water for lead and mandate landlords test older rental units for lead. The legislation is still at the committee level.
The state Department of Health, meantime, has eliminated a lead testing program this year. A spokesperson for the agency said lead poisoning was “not expressed as a priority need” so the Lead and Healthy Homes Program, which helped pay for lead testing, will be discontinued at the end of June.