Lead poisoning. That’s something terrible that happened just once in Flint, Michigan, right?
Today, children in Lancaster County are being poisoned by lead at more than three times the rate children in Michigan were ever poisoned. Pennsylvania has nearly 15,000 children who have been exposed to lead at a critical level in recent years — the second greatest number of lead-poisoned children in the country, just behind Illinois, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Lancaster is one of the worst counties in the state for lead poisoning, according to Pennsylvania Health Department standards.
Working at the Partnership for Public Health and the Lancaster Lead Coalition last summer revealed the horrors of this silent but devastating situation in this community. We saw children and adults with cognitive delays, speech problems, neurological issues and lifelong health threats, all from sometimes small amounts of lead exposure.
And although lead has been discovered in more than 2,000 public water systems across the United States, including recently in some Lancaster County public schools, our problem with lead comes mainly from old paint. More than 80 percent of the housing here was built before 1978. Somewhere, in most houses, are layers of lead paint. If a house has not been constantly cared for, over time any layers of nonlead paint will disintegrate and reveal fragments and dust from the original lead paint that was used.
The younger the child who is exposed to lead, the more dangerous and costly the results.
It costs on average $6,500 to remediate a home in Lancaster County to make it lead-safe. Contrast that figure with these: It costs upwards of $20,000 for special education services every year for a child affected by lead poisoning. And it costs more than $40,000 per year to keep someone incarcerated.
Studies show children who have been exposed to lead have as much as eight times the chance of being locked up because lead affects behaviors and self-control — forever. Eighteen years after lead was taken out of gasoline, the U.S. hit the lowest level of violent crime in 40 years, according to statistics kept by the FBI.
Unfortunately, the effects of lead are irreversible. A National Health Survey widely published this year found that 18 percent of all deaths in the U.S. could be linked to lead exposure. That includes 250,000 heart disease deaths per year. Lead exposure also affects development, IQ, kidney function, moods and fertility.
We knew we had to do something that would bring awareness to this issue and help educate people. They need to know if their children have been exposed to this toxic heavy metal and what we, as a community, can do about it. Unfortunately, the first time many parents hear about lead poisoning is when their children have been affected.
We have been working on a documentary about the dangers of lead, with the help of aideM Media Solutions, a video production company in Lancaster.
The documentary tells the toxic story of lead and highlights interviews with children who have been exposed to lead in Lancaster County and their parents. We are offering a public preview of our film at 6 p.m. Tuesday at Zoetropolis Theater on Water Street in downtown Lancaster.
The seven-minute film will be followed by a panel discussion led by leading lead experts and Lancaster city Mayor Danene Sorace.
Only prevention can lower the number of children exposed to lead. If you care about the future of Lancaster County, you will give this issue your time and attention.
Note: Beginning Wednesday, the documentary will be available for viewing on the Partnership for Public Health website here.
Alma Felix is a senior at Albright College in Reading. Esther Verkouw graduated in December from Millersville University. They were interns last summer with the Partnership for Public Health in Lancaster.