At any level, lead is a poisonous neurotoxin and a notorious thief of human potential.
Every year, Racine County health officials witness the diagnosis of lead poisoning in over 100 children per year. However, as testing levels decrease, many children remain undiagnosed, resulting in dire consequences. The primary source of lead exposure is lead-based paint.
Lead poisoning disproportionately impacts individuals in the Black and Brown communities of Racine. The reason is that older homes in these areas frequently have lead paint and lead service pipes, exacerbated by insufficient maintenance. Racine County has the highest number of children testing positive for lead poisoning.
Shedding light on this matter is Brian Weaver, the lead policy advisor to the Division of Public Health at the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.
“Children residing in rental properties with inadequate maintenance are particularly vulnerable,” Weaver explained. “The lead-based paint hazards found in these homes pose significant risks to their health, and we must take decisive action to protect them from preventable harm.”
Weaver described the typical scenario: “Young children, typically between the ages of 12 months and three years, ingest the paint because of their frequent hand-to-mouth behavior.”
This chipping, peeling paint, found inside or outside homes, leads to ingestion and subsequent poisoning.
The path of destruction
Children exposed to lead, even in small amounts, may experience developmental delays, lower IQ levels, and behavioral issues. Lead exposure can lead to premature births and lower birth weights for pregnant mothers. In adults, long-term exposure may result in high blood pressure and kidney dysfunction.
The American Academy of Pediatrics underscored the importance of monitoring lead toxicity in a position statement published in 2016, which centered around prevention as the key to limiting the impact of lead poisoning on children.
Antisocial behaviors, including conduct disorder, delinquency and criminal behaviors, can result from various risk factors. Still, there is substantial evidence that lead toxicity is one of the major risk factors for their development.
Childhood lead toxicity incurs significant economic costs. Despite the progress in reducing blood lead concentrations, the annual expense of childhood lead exposure in the United States is estimated at $50 billion. For every $1 invested in reducing lead hazards in housing units, society stands to benefit by an estimated $17 to $221.
“This cost–benefit ratio is comparable to that of childhood vaccines,” according to the paper.
Sources of lead poisoning
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the most common sources of lead exposure include lead-based paint, contaminated soil and some household products. Efforts to reduce exposure and provide education on the risks are essential in protecting these vulnerable populations.
The first step, however, is testing children. But that’s been a challenge.
Testing levels in Racine County dropped from 3,416 in 2018 to 2,440 in 2021, a 29% decrease during COVID-19, according to the Wisconsin DHS.
“There is always room for improvement when it comes to testing,” said Cody Pearce, epidemiologist for the City’s Public Health Department. “Blood lead testing options in the Racine area were scaled back due to the pandemic and still have not fully returned to pre-pandemic service levels.”
The lack of community infrastructure for conducting blood lead level tests on children poses a significant challenge. This resource deficiency hinders the community’s ability to accurately assess and effectively address potential health risks our young ones face, Weaver said during an exclusive interview.
The Women Infants and Children (WIC) Program, a federal special nutritional program, offers health and nutrition services to low-income pregnant women, breastfeeding women, and children under five. The program previously included testing as part of its intake process. However, the department has been granted a waiver to conduct in-person intake until 2026, according to Weaver.
When those resources were no longer available, many families relied on their pediatricians to do those screenings at well-baby check-ups.
“During COVID, many parents were also not seeking care from the clinics,” he said. “So the children were not receiving their blood tests.”
Pediatrician Dr. Margaret Hennessy confirmed that Ascension All Saints pediatricians follow the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations and routinely test for lead at 12 months. Additional testing is also done at any age when other factors, like history, demographics, etc., are considered and warrant testing.
“We saw a big drop (in people seeking care) during the worst of the pandemic, but we have been seeing a steady increase, approaching pre-pandemic levels,” she said.
This lack of testing has the potential to erase much of the progress made in dealing with the issue, Weaver said.
“We don’t test enough children. So the number (of children testing positive for lead poisoning) certainly will be higher if more children are tested statewide,” he said.
The interview revealed the extent of the challenge in Wisconsin, particularly in cases where children live in poverty or reside in older, pre-1978 rental properties where lead paint is often not maintained properly. In the City of Racine, 75% of the homes were built before 1978, and many still have lead paint, according to the city’s website.
Remediating the root cause of the problem
Mayor Cory Mason initiated the Racine Housing Loans Program to assist homeowners in revitalizing their properties. The state also provides lead abatement assistance to people on BadgerCare through the Lead Safe Homes Program.
But those programs rely on testing as a trigger point for services.
While the health departments and the city have started tackling the issue of lead poisoning head-on, the core challenge is ensuring parents understand the pressing need to have their children tested.
“They have a great housing and public health program when they respond to a child who has lead poisoning,” Weaver said. “We often refer health departments to look at what the City of Racine has done over the years to address this issue of childhood lead poisoning. So things are going well, but more work must be done. Children continue to be left poisoned in Racine County and the City of Racine, but they have become leaders in the state.”
Pearce said testing children for lead poisoning remains critical.
“High lead levels affect a child’s development and can affect them for the rest of their lives,” he said. “So it’s getting a lead test. It is a pretty simple process, and it should be happening at well-child visits anyway, as part of their regular overall health care.”
Racine Interfaith Coalition forms environmental justice task force
Figuring out how to educate the public en masse about the dangers of lead poisoning has caught the attention of the Racine Interfaith Coalition, a nonprofit organization comprised of 26 congregations or affiliates.
The group formed an environmental justice task force this year to help educate parents about the importance of getting their children tested for lead poisoning. However, the focus has widened to include bringing more testing sites into more accessible places for families and educating teachers about the issue.
“It’s really upsetting because they’ve (the children) already not been tested for three years,” said Tamerin Hayward, co-president of RIC. “So we’ve got hundreds of these children that have never been tested.”
RIC plans to partner with the Racine Community Health Center (RCHC) to help get the word out to parents about having their children tested once the service is available at Julian Thomas Elementary School.
“And then when we’ve cleared the ground, they’re taking some of our churches or locations elsewhere in the inner city community,” Hayward said. “I mean, we don’t know whether to laugh or cry. We’re so excited.”
Dr. Janice Litza, a family medicine practitioner at Ascension All Saints Hospital and board member at RCHC, highlights that RCHC is currently in the exploratory stage of identifying untapped services that can be provided to the community.
They are currently examining how other community health centers or federally qualified health centers conduct lead screenings for the community. This allows the group to gather insights and avoid duplicating services, while also creating additional screening opportunities. The aim is to learn from their practices and ensure that they provide necessary and non-redundant services, Litza said.
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