Lead-Poisoning Screenings Lag in Pittsburgh Area

By Zlatos, Bill | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, April 22, 2007 | Go to article overview

Lead-Poisoning Screenings Lag in Pittsburgh Area


Zlatos, Bill, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


Pennsylvania leads the country in the rate of children found with dangerous blood levels of potentially brain-damaging lead, yet children in the Pittsburgh area are less likely to have a blood test for lead poisoning than in most comparable cities.

Pennsylvania's 2005 rate of children diagnosed with high lead levels -- 4.9 percent of children tested -- is highest in the country, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"It's not surprising that we live in a post-industrial city with a lot of old housing stock, but it should not be acceptable, considering what we know about the importance of screening and treatment and abatement," said Dr. Stephen Thomas, Philip Hallen Professor of Community Health and Social Justice at the University of Pittsburgh.

Though symptoms don't show up immediately, lead poisoning can damage the brain, cause anemia and hyperactivity, and slow development of youngsters under 6. Severe cases can cause seizures, coma and death. Health experts recommend routine testing for lead poisoning at ages 1 and 2. The most accurate test is a blood test.

A primary treatment is to stop the exposure to lead. In severe cases, an agent can be administered to excrete the lead from the body.

Many children get the poisoning from lead dust or paint chips in older homes.

"According to the 2000 Census, Pennsylvania ranks second in the nation for having the most housing units built before 1950," wrote state Health Department spokesman Richard McGarvey in an e-mailed response to questions.

Lead-based paint has been outlawed since the late 1970s.

In 2005, the last year statistics are available from the CDC, 8.6 percent of Allegheny County children under 6 were screened for lead poisoning . That put Allegheny County 41st in lead screening among the 50 biggest U.S. counties and cities where at least a third of homes were built before 1950, according to the Trib study of federal statistics.

"It's pretty embarrassing," said Dr. Sylvia Choi, a pediatrician at Children's Hospital who examines lead-poisoned children. "The possible impact of all those unscreened children is they may have ongoing lead poisoning, and that'll impact their development and their future."

In Allegheny County, 107 children age 6 or under were diagnosed last year as lead-poisoned, according to the state Department of Health. At least another 1,000 children in the county are estimated to be lead-poisoned, but they have either not been screened or their results might not have been entered into a statewide lead surveillance system, according to a study last year by the RAND- University of Pittsburgh Health Institute in Oakland.

In Westmoreland County, 5.5 percent of children under age 6 were screened and 16 were lead-poisoned.

Philadelphia leads the state, screening 32.3 percent of children under 6 in 2005, and 942 children under age 6 diagnosed, according to the state Health Department. …

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