In several neighborhoods across California, many children face an invisible health threat: lead poisoning. Found in paint dust from homes and apartments built before 1978, long-term exposure to lead has been shown by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to cause health problems ranging from anemia to learning disabilities.
Last December, a Reuters examination of lead testing results in 21 states found almost 3,000 areas throughout the U.S. with lead poisoning rates far higher than in Flint, Michigan, where children were exposed to lead poisoning in the drinking water.
Some of the most alarming areas included Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood where among 500 children tested, 7.5 percent of children had blood lead levels higher than 5 micrograms per deciliter of blood, exceeding the nationwide average of 2.5. Areas of the Bayview and Hunter’s Point neighborhood in San Francisco also showed many children’s blood levels at 3.44.
In Southern California, children in South Los Angeles have also tested positive for high blood lead levels, resulting in the city’s Healthy Home Collaborative to bring together community organizations, health providers and city officials to work together to fix unhealthy housing conditions.
Dr. Cyrus Rangan, a pediatrician and medical toxicologist with California Poison Control said there is no safe level of lead exposure. Damage done by lead poisoning can lead to permanent brain and nervous system damage, kidney disease and even behavioral and physical problems in adulthood.
“Lead poisoning continues to be one of the most important and preventable pediatric environmental diseases today,” Rangan said. He added that children are most commonly exposed to lead by ingesting paint chips or paint dust stemming from peeling paint or dust from homes built before 1978, when lead-based household paint was banned in the United States.
Loose dry soil may lead to an increase in lead exposure in children who play outside in the dirt, Rangan said. Children under 6 are at a greater risk of lead poisoning because they often put objects in their mouth.
Old Problem, New Solutions
The dangers of lead poisoning aren’t new – nationally, average blood lead levels have decreased in the last few decades. Still, large urban cities that were once home to factories, or that have a number of homes and apartments built before 1978, continue to pose a threat to many low-income, minority children, who live in areas where lead in paint and soil has persisted for decades.
Larry Brooks, director of operations at Alameda County Healthy Homes Department, says that over the past 10 years, over 5,000 children have been treated for lead poisoning. His department is now working with city officials to ensure families can live safely within their homes by taking a proactive approach to lead prevention.
Residents can test for lead using kits from home improvement stores or by calling a state lead certified inspector. Many counties, including Alameda County, have grants available for lead repair work. Those who are concerned about potentially having lead in their older house or apartment but can’t afford to do testing or make repairs should contact their local city or county public health department.
Remedying the problem requires funding for lead removal programs and infrastructure upgrades. In 2015, Alameda County received a $3.4 million HUD grant to continue a lead abatement program for low-income renters and homeowners in the county.
“It’s not just a problem that’s tied to Fruitvale, it’s a citywide problem, although those who live in low-income areas are most vulnerable,” Brooks said.
According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the population most affected by lead exposure nationwide are children in low-income families living in old homes or apartments with heavy concentrations of lead-based paint. Many families, especially those in the Bay Area, can’t afford to move out of contaminated homes and apartments, and aren’t able to pay for the lead to be removed from their walls or pipes.
While Brooks and his colleagues in the Healthy Home department work to educate the public and provide grants to low-income residents to upgrade their homes, they are also working with the Oakland City Council to implement measures including increased blood lead screenings in Oakland, organizing volunteers to walk through the Fruitvale area to identify properties that have lead hazards and notify owners of these hazards and available grants. They also hope to implement mandatory lead screening for children entering Pre-K and Kindergarten classes in Oakland.
“We also hope to pass proactive rental inspections so that properties are routinely inspected and hazardous conditions prevented instead of depending solely on reactive complaints from vulnerable tenants,” Brooks says. “There is no safe level of lead exposure when it comes to children.”