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Detrimental effects of lead poisoning plague Lucas Co. homes, children

The following article, written by Lauren Linstrom appeared May 10, 2015 in The Toledo Blade. Read the introduction below, and view the full article on The Blade's website. ABLE Managing Attorney Robert Cole was interviewed for the story.

Detrimental effects of lead poisoning plague Lucas Co. homes, children

The childhood home of Freddie Gray, who died after being injured in Baltimore police custody, setting off nationwide protests, was like so many of the homes in Toledo's central city.

It was rundown and had peeling paint and was where tests show he was exposed to toxic levels of lead.

Aging housing stock in Baltimore and Toledo, and poverty, provide few opportunities for children in low-income families to avoid the threat of lead exposure and the cognitive and physical damage that comes with it.

Mr. Gray, who died on April 12, grew up exposed to high levels of lead paint, was diagnosed with attention deficit problems, and had a history of arrests.

Experts say children exposed to lead are at risk for anemia, behavior and learning problems, lower IQs, and hyperactivity. In pregnant women, lead can cause premature birth and slower fetal growth, as well as risk of miscarriage.

Children who are tested for lead poisoning in Lucas County go to Gloria Smith, a registered nurse and lead case manager for the Toledo-Lucas County Health Department. The first screening is a finger prick. If lead levels in the blood are elevated, another blood test is ordered within 90 days to confirm the level of toxicity.

In 2013, there were 5,628 children younger than 6 who were tested for lead poisoning in Lucas County. Of those tested, 285 children, or just more than 5 percent, had confirmed blood levels of more than 5 micrograms per deciliter of blood, the threshold that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now designates as elevated. Eighty had a confirmed blood lead level of more than 10 micrograms, the point at which Ms. Smith opens a case.

Another 165 Toledo children had elevated levels at the preliminary screening, but their parents did not return them for a confirmation test. The CDC in 2014 lowered the poisoning threshold from 10 to 5 micrograms after continuing research showed damage at lower and lower levels. The 2013 numbers, which are the most recent available, worked under the old guidelines.

The Ohio Department of Health has identified 18 high risk ZIP codes in Lucas County. High risk ZIP codes contain at least one census tract where 12 percent or more of children tested in 2001 had blood lead levels of 10 micrograms and are further defined by demographic and socioeconomic data. One study by the Kirwan Institute at Ohio State University predicted more than 3,400 children in Toledo have lead poisoning.

Ms. Smith, who has held the health department's lead case manager job for about 18 months, said it has opened her eyes to many facets of the problem locally.

"The challenge for me was getting over the shock and how the community thought that lead was no longer an issue," she said.

Lucas County is above the state average of just more than 3 percent of children tested registering lead levels above 5 micrograms per deciliter.

"When I read [about Freddie Gray's home], of course, it made me sad," she said. "But in my job I see these Freddie Grays every single day as little children."

A call to action

Experts stress the same message over and over again: There is no safe amount of lead. It's a problem Ruth Ann Norton, president of the Green and Healthy Homes Initiative, calls "entirely preventable."

Lead poisoning is like "taking the knees out from under kids before they are able to stand up for themselves," she said, hindering their success in the classroom and the job market, often in youngsters who are already dealing with tough circumstances. She said lead levels as low as 2 micrograms have been seen to cause damage.

As a child, Mr. Gray had blood lead levels as high as 37 micrograms. He had been arrested dozens of times and had an attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, the Washington Post reported. That doesn't excuse the circumstances of his death, Ms. Norton said, but it provides a broader picture of the environment in which he and others in Baltimore and cities across the country are living.

"It may have been a contributor to him being on the corner rather than at a job or in a classroom," Ms. Norton said. "A child poisoned with lead is seven times more likely to drop out of school and six times more likely to enter the justice system."

The events unfolding in Baltimore are a "call to action," she said. The Green and Health Homes Initiative is a national organization based in Baltimore that works to integrate health-based and energy efficient improvements into homes to decrease hazards, including asbestos, mold, pests, and lead-based products. The organization currently operates in 21 cities, with Toledo possibly becoming No. 22.

"We've long been excited about the prospects of Toledo," she said. "We are hopeful that we will be able to move this forward in 2015."

Eliminating children's exposure to lead-based products will improve third-grade reading scores, long-term graduation rates, and will reduce juvenile crime, she said. A study by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences found that every dollar invested in lead paint hazard remediation results in a financial return of between $17 and $221 in future health-care costs, special education, the criminal justice system, and lifetime earnings of those affected.

>> Read the rest of the article on The Blade's website.