Child lead testing drops in most local counties

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The number of children screened for lead poisoning dropped in most local counties last year, part of a concerning state and national trends.

The number of children screened for lead poisoning dropped in most local counties last year, part of a concerning state and national trend as checkups might have been missed during COVID restrictions.

Auglaize County saw the steepest decline in lead screening in Southwest Ohio with a 34% drop, followed by Clark County with an 18% decline, according to Ohio Department of Health data. Mercer and Miami counties each saw a 17% drop; Montgomery County had an 11% decline.

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Greene County bucked the national trend, as it screened 3% more children in 2020 than it did the previous year.

Dr. Jennifer Hilgeman of Dayton Children's Hospital. CONTRIBUTED
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Dr. Jennifer Hilgeman of Dayton Children's Hospital. CONTRIBUTED

In Ohio, 13% fewer children were tested for the toxins during all of 2020, compared to 2019, the ODH said, noting that it does not track monthly totals.

In analyzing the blood lead level testing trends among children younger than 6, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reviewed data from 34 states, including Ohio, of screenings conducted January–May 2019 and the same period in 2020. They found that 480,172 ― or 34% ― fewer children were tested because of COVID-19 restrictions. Of that total, 9,603 had elevated lead levels, the CDC said.

Lead screening for children younger than 6 declined across the country because of COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention./ STAFF
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Lead screening for children younger than 6 declined across the country because of COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention./ STAFF

Exposure to lead, a toxic metal, is associated with multiple health effects, including developmental delays, reduced IQ, long-term cognitive outcomes, school performance and social functioning, said Dr. Jennifer Hilgeman, a physician at Dayton Children’s Hospital. Lead can also cause organ failure and death, the CDC said.

“The hard part about all of those things is they can be hard to recognize at the onset of that lead exposure, and especially affects children living in poverty,” she said.

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Exposure is a cumulative effect, and for children who are exposed, the levels increase rapidly between 6 and 12 months old with a peak level that typically occurs between 18 and 36 months old, Hilgeman said. That’s because as children become mobile, the likelihood of them being exposed to lead increases since they tend to put things that may have lead in their mouths. As a result, it’s important that children are screened between their 12 and 24 month checkup, she said.

Children should get tested twice before age 6, said Dan Suffoletto, public information supervisor at Public Health-Dayton & Montgomery County. Parents should pay particular attention if they live in homes built before 1978 ― which tend to have high lead levels because of the paint ― or areas that are susceptible to lead, he said.

Although paint has been the main source of lead in homes, the toxin can also be found in soil, especially near highways, Hilgeman said. It also can be found in drinking water if the house and plumbing system are older, she said. Families who live in homes with older pipes should always run the water until it’s cold before consuming it, she said.

Parents should shield children when they are doing home renovations because lead can be in more than just paint, Hilgeman said.

Adults who work in auto repair, battery manufacturing or construction in general should remove their work boots and other clothing before entering their home to avoid exposing their children to lead, Hilgeman said.

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It’s important that parents who have not done so take their children to their pediatricians to catch up on their lead screening and other preventative care and well child checks, she said. Area doctors have been diligent about ensuring their offices are safe.

Physicians are also proactively going through their records to identify children who may have missed their 12 month lead screenings or are behind on their other well child checks and encouraging them to come in, Hilgeman said.

“Getting them back in the door for their checkups, I think is one of the biggest things we can do to help make sure that not only (lead) screening but other screen tests are done,” she said.