When Angie Mitchell noticed small changes in her infant son’s behavior, she never thought her home could be poisoning her baby.
Mitchell, a resident of the Linden Heights neighborhood in Dayton, lives with her partner and their two children in a historic white and blue home situated on a quiet, tree-lined street. When her son visited the pediatrician for his one-year check-up, doctors drew his blood to rule out lead poisoning.
“It seems like it takes no time for (lead) to become toxic in the body, but years to detox it from your system,” she said. “It’s nasty stuff.”
Like hundreds of children in Ohio, Mitchell’s son had dangerously high levels of lead in blood — caused by lead dust in the basement of their home. They also identified lead paint on the exterior of their home. There are hundreds of homes in the region that are exposing residents, especially children, to toxic lead substances in paint and other materials.
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The Ohio Department of Health tracks both hazardous homes and children with high levels of lead found in their blood systems, and identifies high risk zip codes. A new interactive tracking tool released by the state department allows Ohioans to access and customize the most up-to-date child lead testing data from their community.
More than 100 children under the age of 6 in Montgomery County were found to have above 5 micrograms per deciliter of lead in the blood in 2017, the new Ohio Health Department data analyzed by this newspaper shows.
Ohio law requires action be taken by local health departments when children test above 5 micrograms per deciliter of lead in their blood. The health departments must start an investigation into the source of the poisoning.
In Cuyahoga County, where Cleveland is located, 1,866 children under age 6 tested above 5 micrograms per deciliter.
Children exposed to lead over extended periods of time have experienced behavioral and cognitive effects, University of Cincinnati researcher Kim Dietrich told this newspaper. They’re more prone to juvenile delinquency and commit crimes more frequently. Exposure can also cause various physical ailments and long-term conditions.
State health officials say that an increase in lead hazard awareness, coupled with a crackdown on hazardous properties, has led to an increase in testing for blood lead levels in children — catching some cases before it has an even more detrimental effect on kids’ health.
But dangers still exist. Nearly 100 homes in Butler, Champaign, Clark, Darke, Greene, Miami, Montgomery and Preble counties have been placed on the Ohio Lead Hazardous Properties list. The owners of these properties have refused to comply with an order from the Ohio Department of Health or its delegated local board of health to correct known lead hazards.
With more testing, more health problems found
Tom Hut, who oversees the childhood lead poisoning prevention program for Public Health Dayton and Montgomery Count, said a statewide push to educate citizens about the hazards of lead has resulted in the blood testing of more children under the age of six.
In 2016, about 162,185 children under the age six were tested for lead in Ohio. That number increased to 169,447 in 2017 and more than 32,784 children have already been tested this year. When lead is absorbed into the body, it can cause heart and kidney problems, developmental delays and other serious concerns. There is no “safe” level of lead in the blood – any confirmed level is an indication that the child has been exposed.
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The Lead Poisoning Clinic at Dayton Children’s Hospital provides testing and treatment for children who have high levels of lead in their blood. Doctors and agencies from throughout the region refer patients to the clinic for testing and care, according to the hospital.
Health professionals advise that all children should be tested for lead before the age of six, especially if they live in a house that was built prior to the 1980s. The state also encourages children who live in high-risk zip codes to be tested.
About 125 kids in Montgomery County tested with confirmed elevated levels of lead in their blood since 2016, according to state data while 120 children in Clark County tested positive for confirmed elevated levels of lead. Counties with newer home development saw fewer cases: Warren County with 19 confirmed cases; and Butler with 54 confirmed cases.
State cracking down on hazardous properties
There are hundreds of homes in Ohio that have been declared hazardous properties because children who lived in the homes tested for highest levels of lead in their blood. There are more than 40 homes on the list in Clark County, and about 25 in Montgomery County. Hazardous properties are also scattered around Eaton, Troy, Piqua, Xenia, Middletown and Hamilton in Butler County.
In Montgomery County, dilapidated homes are left abandoned with “Order to Vacate” warning signs posted on the doors. Older houses are more likely to have lead substances present because lead was used in paint until 1978. Chips from this paint can be ingested or ground into dust, which is more likely to be eaten or breathed in. This happens when children play on the ground or put things into their mouths. Lead can also be found in soil, water and some products made in other countries.
Hut said offenders have about a year to abate any issues in the house. Some impacted houses in the area are located near Grafton Hill, the Oregon District and Southern Dayton View.
“The situation hasn’t changed a whole lot,” he said. “We still are faced with somewhat of a lack of funding for lead hazards. What has changed, the Ohio Department of Health has acquired additional funding through HUD for Medicaid.”
While some abatement funding is available for low-income households, the burden often falls on landlords and home owners. For Mitchell, the cost of abating the lead issues in her family’s home cost more than $2,500. She said she had about a year to fix the issues, and the costly renovations to repaint the outside of the home and the basement was a financial burden.
Now, she’s focused on her family’s recovery and changing her son’s diet to remediate the lead exposure.
“It’s taking some time to get past this,” she said.
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