Pb-lem with big consequences
Childhood lead exposure in Long Beach is down but not yet out.
By: Kevin Flores, Special Projects Editor
Photos courtesy of: Abby Lanes via Flickr
April 20, 2016
The Flint, Michigan water crisis, in which corrosive water caused lead from aging pipes to leech into the water supply, exposed up to 12,000 children to high levels of lead. In January, the Long Beach Water Department released a statement reassuring residents that the city’s water was safe and is not transported by “lead service lines.”
Water, however, is not the only source of lead exposure. According to the CDC, lead-based paint is the most widespread and dangerous high-dose source of lead exposure for young children.
Lead paint was banned in the United States in 1978, yet many Long Beach buildings were built before the ban and still contain the toxin in their paint. Because lead poisoning can be symptomless it often goes undiagnosed and even short periods of exposure are deleterious to a person’s health, especially in children.
The Long Beach Department of Health & Human Services Bureau of Environmental Health Lead Program is responsible for investigating childhood lead poisoning and enforcing environmental ordinances.
Alex Ucelo, a health educator with the program, says that children absorb 50 percent of the lead they come into contact with and that lead is especially dangerous for children between the ages of one and six because it can stunt the development of bodily systems, including the nervous system and brain. At high levels, lead can even cause death.
A brochure posted on the program’s website states that “childhood lead poisoning is the most preventable environmental health hazard facing children nationwide.”
Because lead paint was more durable than unleaded paint, it was most commonly used in buildings closest to the beach which were most susceptible to corrosion.
“[In Long Beach] the closer you get to the beach, the more likely you are to find lead paint,” said Ucelo.
In 2012, the city received a Lead Based Paint Hazard Control grant of $2,299,996 from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The grant was meant to target downtown, Central and North Long Beach. Since then, the city has not received funding from HUD for lead abatement.
With the grant, the Environmental Health Lead Hazard Control Program protected 206 low-income residents, including 80 children from lead-based paint exposure in their homes by directing 52 lead remediation projects, according to the city’s 2016 budget.
The Long Beach Lead Program maintains a directory of affordable housing units made lead-safe using the HUD lead grant funding, a majority of which are located south of the 405 freeway and east of the 91 freeway, leaving large swaths of North Long Beach and Westside with few listings.
The program uses HUD funds, when available, to control lead-based paint hazards in pre-1940 affordable housing occupied by families with children aged 5 or younger in targeted high-risk areas of the city.
According to HUD, minorities and low-income residents are typically those most likely to live in older buildings that contain lead.
The news website Vox recently used housing and poverty data to calculate the lead exposure risk across the country. Downtown Long Beach, the Westside and North Long Beach had some of the highest lead exposure risk level, with many neighborhoods scoring nine and ten, the highest possible score.
State law requires counties to report all blood lead level test results to the California Department of Public Health Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Branch.
Although blood lead levels have been in steady decline since the ban on lead gasoline and paint, the CDC estimates that 4 million households in the U.S. still have children living in them that are being exposed to high levels of lead.
The most recent information available for Long Beach, from 2012, shows that out of the 8,770 children age 6 and under screened, 2.09% had a lead blood level of over 4.5 micrograms per deciliter compared to 1.95% in the rest of Los Angeles County.
According to the CDC, there is no safe lead blood level. The California Department of Public Health recommends that children with levels above 4.5 micrograms per deciliter should receive public health action to reduce their future exposure to lead.
Lead poisoning in children can decrease cognitive function and a lower IQ. Once the damage is done, it is irreversible.
A 2012 study by Rick Nevin, a consultant to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and Tulane University researcher Howard Mielke linked childhood lead exposure to criminality later in life.
Ucelo says parents who suspect their home may contain lead should purchase test strips from a hardware store. If lead is found, he recommends that children should be encouraged to maintain good hand washing habits. If lead is present on the outside of the home, children should not be allowed to play in the soil because it may be contaminated.
According CDC nutrition can also mitigate the effects of lead. Foods high in calcium, iron and vitamin C.may help keep the toxin out of the body.
Long Beach also provides free blood lead screening and testing through the Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program.