By Joshua Schneyer and M.B. Pell
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Cities and towns across the United States are taking action after a Reuters report identified thousands of communities where children tested with lead poisoning at higher rates than in Flint, Michigan.
From California to Pennsylvania, local leaders, health officials and researchers are advancing measures to protect children from the toxic threat. They include more blood-lead screening, property inspections, hazard abatement and community outreach programs.
The University of Notre Dame is offering a graduate course to study and combat local poisoning problems the report helped bring to light.
"This has just laid out that it's not just a Detroit issue, it's not just a Baltimore issue," said Ruth Ann Norton, president of Green & Healthy Homes Initiative, a Baltimore-based nonprofit. "This started conversations with mayors and governors."
In an investigation last month, the news agency used census tract and zip code-level data from millions of childhood blood tests to identify nearly 3,000 U.S. communities with recently recorded lead poisoning rates at least double those in Flint. More than 1,100 of these neighborhoods had a rate of elevated blood tests at least four times higher than in Flint.
A Reuters interactive map, built with previously unpublished data, allowed users to track local poisoning rates across much of the country for the first time. In many areas, residents and officials weren't previously aware of the scope of local children's exposure. The poisoning hazards include deteriorating lead paint, tainted soil and contaminated water.
To read the December investigation and use the map, click here: http://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/usa-lead-testing/
Flint's lead poisoning is no aberration, Reuters found, but one example of a preventable health crisis that continues in hazardous spots in much of the country.
Lead poisoning stunts children's cognitive development, and no level of exposure is considered safe. Though abatement efforts have made remarkable progress in curbing exposure since the 1970s, children remain at risk in thousands of neighborhoods.
In South Bend, Indiana, for instance, the data showed several hotspots. In one tract, 31.3 percent of small children tested since 2005 had blood lead levels at or above 5 micrograms per deciliter, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s current threshold for elevated levels in children under age 6. Children at or above this threshold warrant a public health response, the CDC says. (GRAPHIC: http://tmsnrt.rs/2iSFqm1)
Across Flint, 5 percent of children tested had high levels during the peak of the city's water contamination crisis.
After Reuters published its findings, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg held a press conference with county health officials to address local poisoning. Several actions followed:
- County health officials have begun a surveillance effort to track childhood blood-lead testing, encouraging more screening.
- Officials plan to press for an Environmental Protection Agency grant to boost environmental testing and lead abatement.
- Notre Dame is offering a semester-long graduate level class for students to research the local poisoning problem and assist health officials. A summer research program, "Get the Lead Out," will send students into homes to measure lead in paint, dust, soil and water and inform families about risks. These programs will help pay for hundreds more childhood blood lead tests, after testing stalled due to funding shortfalls.
"Everything has moved into fast-forward pace here since your story," said Heidi Beidinger-Burnett, a county health board member and professor at Notre Dame’s Eck Institute for Global Health. "We are acting with a sense of urgency because kids here depend on it."
Other officials in Indiana are exploring additional measures to protect children. State Senator Jean Breaux introduced a bill this week to compel the state health department to double blood lead screening rates among Indiana children enrolled in Medicaid. The screenings are required for Medicaid-enrolled children, but major testing gaps remain.
In Oakland, California, 7.57 percent of children tested in the Fruitvale neighborhood had high lead levels, a result largely of old lead paint or tainted soil.
Two Oakland council members introduced a city resolution Jan. 12 that, if approved, will require property owners to obtain lead inspections and safety certifications before renting or selling housing built before 1978, when lead paint was banned. Oakland would also provide families in older homes with lead safety materials, and urge more blood screening.
"We need to address that issue, that's the bottom line," said councilman Noel Gallo, who grew up in Fruitvale.
Larry Brooks, director of Alameda County's Healthy Homes Department, wrote in a San Francisco Chronicle editorial that "Oakland has thousands of lead-poisoned children." Before the Reuters report, he added, "whispers about potential lead poisoning in Oakland were dismissed as an 'East Coast phenomenon' or a crisis contained to Flint."
The Reuters analysis found high poisoning rates in spots across Texas, where the office of Austin City Council member Delia Garza said she may use the information to press for more aggressive lead abatement measures. City officials are urging the state health department to release more blood testing data.
Local data can detect clusters of poisoned children who remain hidden in the broader surveys states usually publish. The news agency obtained local data covering 21 states, and about 61 percent of the U.S. population, through public records requests.
In the Dallas area, clean air advocacy group Downwinders at Risk is holding an event to address lingering hazards, including shuttered lead smelters. The group cited Reuters' work, which helped to identify Dallas areas with high poisoning rates.(GRAPHIC: http://tmsnrt.rs/2iSLxqj)
"Having five to six times the national average of high blood lead readings in a zip (code) just south of downtown certainly has been getting people's attention," said group director Jim Schermbeck.
In St. Joseph, Missouri, where testing data showed at least 120 small children have been poisoned within a 15-block radius since 2010, the city manager convened department heads to address the problem. (GRAPHIC: http://tmsnrt.rs/2iSzl93)
Pennsylvania had the most census tracts where at least 10 percent of children tested high for lead. In Warren, where the rate was as high as 36 percent, the city manager said she's considering distributing home-testing kits to families. County officials will meet to consider several additional measures, including boosting blood screening and increasing funding for prevention. (GRAPHIC: http://tmsnrt.rs/2iSBOk0)
County Commissioner Jeff Eggleston said he wasn't aware of the full scope of poisoning in Warren until the Reuters report. It hit close to home. A few years ago, Eggleston said, his infant son was poisoned by lead.
(Reporting by Joshua Schneyer and M.B. Pell. Editing by Ronnie Greene)