Children's Health: Identifying Houses with Lead Risk

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Dr. Larry Quang knows well the threat that lead can pose to young children. Quang is a physician at Rainbow Babies & Children's Hospital who trained in caring for lead-poisoned kids in Boston. He says the consequences of lead-poisoning can be serious, even fatal. He recalls one child who died.

Larry Quang: The child absorbed lead concentrations that were just life-threatening and she came back two days later seizing. I have to say that's a pretty rare presentation nowadays.

Dr. Quang was one of several speakers at a workshop held last week in Cleveland to teach local physicians, nurses and teachers about the hazards of childhood lead exposure. He says in the 1960s and 70s when leaded gasoline was still in use, the concentration of lead fumes was so intense that many children experienced these symptoms. But Dr. Quang says while extreme cases of lead poisoning can be relieved through a treatment called chelation, the damage to a child's IQ is permanent. And he still sees plenty of kids in Cleveland who've been exposed to lead.

Larry Quang: What I usually see are children with learning delays, aggression, hyperactivity or there could be no symptoms at all. Which is why it's important to screen children whose families are enrolled in Medicaid, children who live in high-risk zip codes.

Most houses built before 1978 have lead paint both inside and out. Health officials say poorly-maintained homes are more likely to have peeling paint that very young children can put in their mouths. But paint isn't the only source. City soils also contain lead particles that tracked indoors can poison a young child. So can the high concentrations of lead in Cleveland's dust. African-American children are two to three times more likely to be poisoned than white kids. Matt Carroll, interim director of the Cleveland Health Department, says the city wanted to know why and began testing to see which neighborhoods pose the greatest risk.

Matt Carroll: Some neighborhoods are over 20% or in the 20% range, including some inner-ring suburbs as well. And it's really not the percentage, but the number of children who deal with this every year.

Last year in Cuyahoga County 2,000 children were found to have high lead levels. That's a rate of about 12% overall, down from 45% ten years ago. County health commissioner Terry Allen admits that while efforts to reduce lead hazards have been remarkably successful, it's almost impossible to clean up all of the estimated 500,000 homes in Cleveland where lead poses a risk to kids.

Terry Allen: We've been applying for funds from HUD, usually in the $1-2-million range. That will allow us to do about 100, 150 units in cities like East Cleveland. It can cost between $10- and $15,000 to repair the lead hazards in the home. But it's a challenge. Some say it's like spitting in the lake on an annual basis.

Matt Carroll says that's why the members of the Greater Cleveland Lead Advisory Council, led by city and county health officials, have started a new approach.

Matt Carroll: The main strategy is primary prevention. That is, to get to homes before children are poisoned. One thing we're doing is reaching pregnant women and trying to get into those homes as soon as possible, so that when a child comes home, he or she comes home to a house that doesn't have a lead risk.

The council has set a goal of completely eliminating childhood lead poisoning in greater Cleveland by 2010. Health officials admit it's an ambitious goal - but they say failure comes at too high a price. Karen Schaefer, 90.3.

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