Detecting and Preventing Lead Poisoning in Children

An Op-Ed by:

Senator Lisa Baker, Senator John Yudichak and Wright Township Police Chief Royce Engler

As public officials, citizens are often reaching out to us for assistance at some of the most vulnerable times of their lives. This is why we try to be proactive to find solutions that improve the conditions for citizens in our communities.

In Luzerne County and across Pennsylvania, we continue to see the devastating impact of lead exposure in our homes, which negatively affects our children’s physical and behavioral health.

One of the best approaches to successfully stop this cycle is to prevent lead exposure in childhood before it starts. Lead exposure at a young age, primarily through ingestion of paint chips and inhalation of paint dust, can result in damage to the nervous system and brain, learning difficulties, behavior issues, and problems with impulse control, which can lead to juvenile and adult crime.

For many children who were exposed to lead at a young age, their families may not have even been aware of the hazards in their homes. Unfortunately, exposure to lead at a young age is a persistent problem in Luzerne County, which, at 200 cases every year, ranks 8th highest of all PA counties in the number of children poisoned annually. One of the main factors for this high ranking is that more than three quarters of our housing stock was built before lead paint was banned in 1978, which means that many homes that have not been remediated for lead are risky environments for children.

Lead lurks in thousands of homes in Pennsylvania, affecting children who are exposed to it in utero and during childhood. More than 9,000 young children suffer from lead poisoning each year in our Commonwealth according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health. The true number of children affected is likely even higher because not all children are screened for lead exposure. Here in Luzerne County, fewer than one in five children are screened for lead. Senator Baker and Senator Yudichak have taken an active role with helping to combat this problem through their work with the Task Force on Lead Exposure, and by introducing Senate Bill 522.  This legislation would require universal blood testing for children, to ensure young children aren’t being exposed to lead and to address poisoning early on.

A recent report from the anti-crime organization Fight Crime: Invest in Kids describes the relationship between childhood lead poisoning and increased likelihood of being involved in the justice system later in life.  One study of 120,000 children born in Rhode Island between 1990 and 2004 found that as blood lead levels increased, so did rates of suspension from school and juvenile incarceration. Another long-term study of the relationship between lead exposure and crime found that populations that had lead in their drinking water had higher homicide rates after twenty years, compared to areas where lead was not present in drinking water. Additionally, children who were exposed to lead in early childhood committed, on average, nearly five more delinquent acts as adolescents than their peers who were not exposed to lead as children.

These studies and others suggest that identifying children at risk for lead poisoning and removing the lead from home environments are two of the smartest investments that we can make in keeping our children healthy and on the right path for years to come.

It is critical that we make lead testing widely available to Pennsylvanians so that more children with lead poisoning can be identified. But testing is an after-the-fact approach to dealing with childhood lead poisoning, which is a 100 percent preventable problem. Pennsylvania also needs to be proactive in providing resources to communities to support landlords and homeowners in removing lead hazards from homes and other dwelling places.

Research estimates that the total cost of the lifetime economic burden of childhood lead exposure in Pennsylvania is $3.1 billion. This figure includes the costs of increased healthcare, increased spending on education, reduced lifetime productivity, and premature mortality. The direct costs of crime due to lead exposure nationally is estimated to be over $1.7 billion. It is estimated that every dollar spent on removing lead paint-based hazards results in a return of three dollars in the form of avoided health care costs and loss of lifetime earnings.

By investing in lead testing and residential lead remediation now, we can protect children from lead exposure for generations and reap the benefits of safer, healthier communities.

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