OLEAN — The Lead(Pb)Smart Partnership struggles with trying to prevent what’s often called the most preventable disease — lead poisoning.
Members include employees with the departments of health of Cattaraugus, Allegany and Chautauqua counties and the Seneca Nation Health Systems Environmental Health Unit. They met earlier this week in the Cattaraugus County Health Department offices in Olean; it was the group’s first meeting of 2020.
Health officials are busy with increased caseloads since the action level for lead in children’s’ blood dropped from 15 to 5, effective Oct. 1.
Cattaraugus County Lead Prevention Coordinator Gayle Faulkner has been working in the health department’s lead program since 2007.
“We have a 60% lead testing rate in children ages 1 and 2,” Faulkner said. “What about the other 40% we don’t know about?”
Faulkner thinks a fair estimate is that 40% of 2,000 1- and 2-year-olds in the county have not been tested, even though it is required by the state Department of Health.
Members of the group agreed that additional community outreach is needed not only to urge parents to make sure their children are tested but to make parents more aware of the ways lead can get into a child’s bloodstream.
Most often it stems from renovation, repair or painting in older homes, Faulkner said.
The Lead Group hopes to hold a meeting soon with area pediatricians and their staffs to try to find out why more children aren’t tested. The meeting may be co-sponsored with St. Bonaventure University’s medical program.
When a child’s blood tests at or above the action level, the health department is notified and arranges for a home visit to help determine possible causes of exposure. Some children may regularly stay or visit outside their home. These sites must also be inspected. A portable x-ray machine can find lead paint — the principal type of exposure — beneath layers of newer lead-free latex paint.
To make sure that the steps taken to remediate a residential lead paint problem, the department follows the level of blood in each case.
Pregnant women with high lead levels will also pass exposure on to their newborns
Lead was banned from residential paint products in 1973, but with the high number of older homes across the Southern Tier, many are still in use — sometimes as rental units of families with young children. Children can ingest lead from paint chips or from lead dust.
People who work in home renovation can bring lead dust into their homes on their clothes. Children can also ingest that dust if they ride in the same car, so precautions need to be taken. Clothes with paint dust should be washed separately.
Many people are unaware of the dangers from lead, Faulkner said. Some can’t afford the remediation necessary if a child’s lead level is determined to be high. Some people refuse to allow environmental health workers into their house or apartment.
More than two-thirds of the nearly 30,000 homes in Cattaraugus County were built before the U.S. ban on lead paint. In the county, much of the lead testing by the health department is done at WIC clinics and Head Start. The county recently added the Olean YMCA Daycare Center as a site where testing can be done.
“We’d like to see an increase in the lead testing rate of children,” Faulkner said. “We are working toward that — and prevention. We need to get more doctors on board.”
Group members from the three counties were joined by Seneca Nation representatives, including Shannon Seneca, environmental health director, and Fallon Beecroft of the Regional Lead Resource Center in Buffalo.
The group will focus on increasing the rate of lead testing of 1- and 2-year-olds in their counties and both the Allegany and Cattaraugus territories, Faulkner said.
This will identify children before their lead exposure can be increased. It will also require proper remediation of a lead problem without making the problem worse.
The group also wants a renewed push on prevention in the coming months. A new sign warning of the danger of lead poisoning is also being readied.
Beecroft suggested health department employees ask a child’s doctor to call the parent to arrange a home visit to educate the parents on how a child’s blood level can become elevated and how it can impact the child’s development.
High lead levels in blood will require a home inspection for the source. Inspections could extend to daycare centers and relatives’ homes.
Olean Common Council member Linda Witte, a member of the group, said the new Cattaraugus County Landbank has helped the city remove a large number of blighted properties, likely removing many homes with peeling paint and other lead dangers.
The city Code Enforcement Office needs to include lead testing in its inspections, Witte said, while noting that landlords consider it burdensome.
“If you can prevent (children) from getting damaged (from lead exposure) think of how much in taxpayer dollars could be saved,” Witte said.
Faulkner said people with questions about lead poisoning and how to prevent it call her office at 701-3412.
(Contact reporter Rick Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter, @RMillerOTH)