Lead still toxic risk for Macon-Bibb children, study says

The good news is that there has been a huge decline in the number of lead-poisoned American children from a few decades ago, a Georgia health expert said Wednesday.

The bad news, he told about 30 public health and housing professionals gathered at the Macon Area Habitat for Humanity office, is that it’s not easy to identify the children who are still at high risk.

Children are most often being damaged by low-level chronic exposure, said Chris Rustin, director of the Environmental Health Section for the Georgia Department of Public Health. Even levels of lead in the blood far below the amount needed to cause obvious symptoms can lower IQ and cause behavior problems, linked strongly to later delinquency and crime, he said.

“Unfortunately, some things are irreversible with lead,” Rustin said.

Harold Tessendorf, executive director of Macon Area Habitat for Humanity, said Rustin has developed a tool that can be used locally. As Habitat’s services have grown from new construction to rehabilitation and repair of older homes, it has had to start dealing with lead-based paint, Tessendorf said.

Rustin used Bibb County tax assessors’ data on house ages to predict the likely risk of lead exposure, and he combined it with known lead levels from previous blood tests. The resulting map, which is not currently publicly available, shows where children are likely at risk of lead exposure, which should enable health officials to target future blood tests and house inspections. The goal is to spot and control risks before children can be exposed, instead of simply reacting to a known problem, Rustin said.

“Lead poisoning is 100 percent preventable,” he said.

Forty percent of houses in Georgia were built before lead paint was banned, and Macon-Bibb County is a “hot pocket” of potential problems, Rustin said.

“The higher-risk homes are the ones that were built before 1950,” he said.

Of the roughly 49,000 residential properties in Macon-Bibb, about 8,000 are in the highest of five risk categories, Rustin found. More than half the homes he deems at “elevated” risk.

Rustin’s map shows heaviest risk in the downtown Macon area, and it’s lower in the northern and western parts of the county. But there are some high-risk homes in every area, with a concentration also in Lizella.

Anyone can be hurt by exposure to lead, but small children particularly are vulnerable because they’re still developing and because lead stays in their bodies longer than it does in adults, Rustin said.

Luis Munoz, healthy homes coordinator for the North Central Health District, said Macon-Bibb has the second-highest prevalence of lead risk exposure in Georgia. It’s his job to test houses for lead, and he said he frequently talks to families about the hazards of lead dust.

Lead testing kits are available in many stores and are fairly inexpensive, Munoz said. Anyone worried about exposure should ask doctors or the Bibb County Health Department for a blood test, he said.

That’s the only sure way to detect lead exposure, and it’s up to parents and guardians to become informed and stay involved, Munoz said.

The children at greatest risk are those from low-income families who live in older rental houses, Rustin said. Children on Medicaid are federally required to be tested for lead exposure, but in Georgia only about a third of such children are tested, he said. Many doctors no longer think about lead hazards, Rustin said.

Landlords can be required to fix lead problems in rental properties, but that can be very expensive, Rustin said. When a lead problem is found, landlords often will evict tenants, who may move into another house with a lead problem, Rustin said.

Lead was widely used to make paint more durable until the 1950s, he said. It declined after that and was banned in 1978. Between the 1970s and 1990, leaded gasoline also declined, and the level of lead in children’s bloodstreams dropped in close correlation to the decline of lead in paint and gas, Rustin said.

But many houses still have lead paint, and today lead is found in some cosmetics, jewelry and Mexican candy, he said. Most exposure today comes from lead dust in old houses, but it can also concentrate in soil from exterior paint, Rustin said.

“It takes a very minute amount of lead dust to poison a child,” he said.

Read more here: http://www.macon.com/2014/11/05/3407547/lead-still-toxic-risk-for-macon.html#storylink=cpy

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