SAVANNAH, GA (WTOC) –
It’s been four years since the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, began to dominate national headlines.
Officials in Flint discovered aging pipes were causing lead to leak into their water supply, potentially exposing more than 100,000 residents to high levels of lead.
Dangerous levels of lead, however, are not exclusive to Flint.
Pediatric health records reveal one in six children living in Savannah’s historic district are living with high lead levels. That’s three times higher than what children were exposed to during the water crisis in Flint.
Unlike in Flint, health experts in Savannah are convinced the higher-than-normal lead levels are coming from lead dust particles often found in older homes, not the water supply.
High levels of lead can cause health problems, and the symptoms from lead poisoning are so similar to autism that most parents are missing the signs. Some of those include motor delay, irritability and learning disabilities.
Lead District Specialist Maria Wargovich makes house calls after a child has tested high for lead levels. She works hundreds of cases a year spanning thirty-four counties in Georgia. She says once lead is in your home, it never leaves.
According to an open records request, one out of six kids living in Savannah tested positive for lead in 2016. Over the last eleven years, more than 3,800 children living in the downtown area — including the historic district — were tested, and almost 20 percent had lead poisoning.
To put that into perspective, the CDC says in the midst of the Flint water crisis, only 3 percent of children tested positive for elevated lead levels.
According to the documents, these numbers have always been high. Just in the last year, the historic district actually improved by going down to 14 percent.
“It absolutely can cause seizures, developmental delays and significant other growth issues,” local Savannah pediatrician Ben Spitalnick said.
Spitalnick is the president of the American Academy of Pediatrics in Georgia. He said he has treated 12 patients with lead poisoning in his 18-year career.
Lead poisoning is defined as anyone testing with a lead level higher than five micrograms per deciliter. It would take a large amount of lead to become fatal, but, if not detected or treated, the effects could be irreversible.
“Pretty much every child at age one and age two gets their lead level checked,” Spitalnick said. “Savannah has a very large historic district, so a pediatrician in Savannah knows to keep an eye out for lead levels.”
Spitalnick is also convinced that the increase levels are coming from lead particles in older homes and not the water children are drinking. The city of Savannah regularly tests for lead contamination – randomly selecting homes to collect water samples. According to records filed with the Georgia Environmental Protection Agency, the city has reported safe lead levels for the last 15 years.
City officials say they are spending $130,000 in taxes each year for corrosion inhibitors, which add chemicals to the water that helps protect people from lead contamination.
“For our water source, there is no lead in our water and you’ll see that in some of our results,” said Heath Lloyd, the chief officer of infrastructure and development. “Some of our results will actually show a zero. What that’s telling you is in the actual source of water, what happens is the lead actually leaches from the pipes or the fixtures.”
Savannah’s records for water testing say the water is safe.Those who are still curious can go to any home improvement store and pick up an at home water testing kit. Experts say it’s not scientific, but it will give you an idea if lead is in your water.
We went around Savannah and tested three homes and even the public water fountain at Forsyth Park. All of our tests came back negative. But when we tested a door frame for lead particles in a historic home built in 1933, it tested positive.
“Lead is a heavy metal. It doesn’t deteriorate. It doesn’t go away,” Wargovich said. “It’s not like a radioactive element that turns into something else or decays. It’s there.”
According to experts, homes built before 1978 could be considered unsafe for lead standards.
State law requires home-buyers to sign a lead disclosure form if the house was built before 1978. But some residents — like Sellers Roach — were unaware that these homes could actually make children sick.
“I don’t want to be a fear monger but 46 kids downtown seems like a pretty high number and 16 in our neighborhood seems like a pretty high number, ” Roach said.
Roach has three children under the age of five. She never thought her beautiful home could be putting her kids in danger..
“I’m actually really surprised by [the numbers] and again I think I take for granted that our drinking water is safe and the Flint story was such a crisis that it really scares me,” Sellers said.
Wargovich says residents should worry about the dust in their homes. When lead based paint deteriorates, it puts off lead dust. When renovating an older home in the historic district, lead dust falls to the floors. Outside, the dust from old chipped paint lands right on top of your soil, which could threaten small children crawling.
“At that age, the hand to mouth behavior is a main source of lead poisoning, and it’s normal for children to explore their environments by putting things in their mouths,” Wargovich said.
She says it is impossible to make a home lead free, but residents can make it lead safe.
“Constant hand washing. Take your shoes off at the door so you don’t track in lead dust from the soil. Clean with wet supplies – don’t dry sweep because that’ll just move all the dust around. Wipe down targeted areas like windows and doors,” Wargovich said.
These tips are directed to eliminate threats for children under the age of six. They are the most at risk for lead poisoning and the easiest targets. There is no requirement for data on lead poisoning in adults.