Sens. Brown, Portman Back Legislation To Increase Lead Screenings For Kids

A row of vials labeled "lead test"
The legislation aims to ensure children receive recommended screenings for lead poisoning and would let the CDC offer grants for states to improve reporting practices. [Innovative Creation / Shutterstock]

Ohio Sens. Sherrod Brown and Rob Portman are leading a national effort, with support from Cleveland’s University Hospitals, to increase nationwide testing for lead poisoning in children.

The legislation proposed in the U.S. Senate would ensure testing for children aged 1- and 2-years-old enrolled in Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP).

“Currently only 38 percent of children on Medicaid receive their required lead screening tests, a number far too low,” Portman said in a statement. “This bipartisan legislation aims to bring that number up by codifying current Medicaid regulations and expanding the requirements to all CHIP programs, while also helping states to better identify which efforts are needed to track potential cases of lead exposure.”

The changes are particularly important for Ohio, said Brown, where more than two-thirds of the housing stock is old enough to contain lead hazards.

“No parent should have to worry that her children, that his children are being poisoned at home or in their drinking water,” Brown said.

Just 60 percent of Ohio’s at-risk children receive screenings for lead poisoning, Brown said. Increased testing also would help identify which communities are seeing the highest rates of exposure, he said.

“Not only does testing ensure children get the follow-up care they need, it also helps us identify and remove lead hazards where we find them,” Brown said.

To that end, the bipartisan proposal also would authorize $5 million per year in fiscal 2022 and 2023 for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to award grants so states can improve childhood lead test reporting.

With new local laws, the city of Cleveland is making an effort to increase lead testing in homes and rental units, but testing children for poisoning dropped off last year as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. That leads to less support from state-supported intervention programs offered when a blood test shows exposure.

Exposure to lead at a young age puts Cleveland children at higher risk for juvenile crime, adult incarceration and homelessness, according to a Case Western Reserve University study released last year. The study found lead poisoning has a disproportionate impact on Black children in segregated neighborhoods.

Brown said Wednesday that investments in infrastructure also are needed in order to make wide-scale changes to city pipes in some areas of Ohio. Cleveland’s lead safety advocacy groups are calling for that kind of investment through the Biden administration’s infrastructure plans.

“Many Ohio families only learn that their children have been exposed to toxic levels of lead after they begin to experience symptoms, and then it’s mostly too late,” Brown said.

The effects of lead poisoning are irreversible, said Dr. Edward Barksdale, the surgeon-in-chief for University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital in Cleveland. Many who suffer from lead poisoning early on end up facing additional challenges later in life, he said.

“For adults, they’re more likely to be homeless, rely on public services,” Barksdale said. “There are long-term effects.”

Cleveland’s lead poisoning rate is nearly four times the national average, Barksdale said, and roughly 40 percent of Ohio lead poisoning cases occur in Cuyahoga County.

“Our housing stock in many of our, if you will, Rust Belt cities or older cities were built quite a while ago,” Barksdale said. “There’s lead not only beneath the paint, there’s lead in the soil where kids might play in the yard.”

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