Lancaster County has a lead problem, and it’s our children who are paying the price.
Children in our community are far more likely to have lead poisoning than their peers across the state. In fact, Lancaster County’s rate of children with elevated blood lead levels ranks fourth worst in Pennsylvania. It’s a dubious distinction and one that we must change for the sake of today’s children and for future generations.
As physicians who care for children in our communities, we are excited that Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health is making an historic and nation-leading investment in the health of its community through the launch of the Lead-Free Families initiative.
The goal of Lead-Free Families is to create a strong pathway to eliminate childhood lead poisoning in Lancaster County — leading to healthier children, families and communities. With a first-of-its-kind $50 million investment by Lancaster General Health, Lead-Free Families will identify and remediate lead hazards in at least 2,800 high-risk Lancaster County homes over the next 10 years, while also providing community education and temporary housing and support services for families during remediation.
This is the kind of comprehensive program that’s needed to address the silent epidemic of lead poisoning that has gripped Lancaster County for far too long.
It’s a legacy that comes from our history — more specifically, from the abundance of old housing stock in the county. It is estimated that nearly 91,000 homes in Lancaster County were built prior to 1978, the year lead was banned for use in paint and other consumer products. Today, lead-based paint in the home is far and away the leading cause of lead poisoning in children. That’s why Lead-Free Families is solely focused on removing lead hazards in the home.
Here’s how lead poisoning works: Over time, lead-based paint breaks down, creates dust and, if it enters a growing child’s body, is rapidly absorbed into that child’s brain, bones and kidneys — leading to irreversible damage. Lead poisoning is known to cause lower IQ, learning and behavioral problems in school, and mental health challenges. As the child gets older, these issues can lead to criminal behavior and incarceration, impacting not just the lead-poisoned individual but also that individual’s family and society as a whole.
The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the problem of lead-poisoning, as children are spending more time in potentially dangerous houses and going to the doctor less frequently. Like many providers, we have seen this firsthand with an increase in the number of children who test positive for elevated blood lead levels.
Lancaster County is particularly vulnerable to lead poisoning as we have among the highest per-capita number of children younger than age 7 in the state. As bad as our numbers are, again ranking fourth in Pennsylvania for children with lead poisoning, we know the story may be even worse. That’s because Lancaster County children are not screened for blood lead levels consistently. That’s something we want to change with Lead-Free Families, which is why we’re working with health care providers across the county to stress the importance of early lead screening in children.
But increased lead screening alone will not fix this problem. For those who are poisoned by lead, there is no cure. There is no medicine or treatment to stop its ravaging effects and long-term damage. But we know it is 100% preventable by removing the primary source of the problem — lead hazards in the home — before it’s too late. Lead-Free Families plans to do just that, remediating thousands of homes so that they are safer places for children and families to live.
This initiative is not only the right thing to do for the health of our community; it’s also the smart thing to do for the health of our economy. The Pew Research Center estimates that large-scale lead remediation programs, such as Lead-Free Families, could save the public at least $17 dollars for every dollar invested. This savings would result from lower costs in special education, behavioral health and developmental services, as well as reduced crime and incarceration.
It is not often in medicine that a concerted community effort promises to enhance community wellness to the extent of the Lead-Free Families program. We applaud this initiative as the first comprehensive lead-free homes initiative in the U.S. to be 100% funded and led by a health system. For more information on Lead-Free Families, or to apply for the program, visit LeadFreeFamilies.org or call 717-544-LEAD (717-544-5323).
Together, we can make a measurable impact on lead poisoning’s insidious effects on our children and families — especially for the most vulnerable in our communities — and welcome a brighter future for us all.
Frances C. Gross, D.O., chairs the Department of Pediatrics at Penn Medicine Lancaster General Hospital. Jeffrey R. Martin, M.D., chairs the Department of Family and Community Medicine at Lancaster General Health.