Children in several Dayton neighborhoods have a nearly 1-in-3 chance of having enough lead in their blood to cause delays in their physical or mental development, attention problems and learning disabilities, according to the Ohio Department of Health.
But the source of the problem generally isn’t water, as it is in Flint, Mich., or Sebring, Ohio. It’s poverty.
“There is a lot of valuable research that links poverty and elevated blood levels,” said ODH lead program director John Belt.
“The reasons are obvious. If I’m in a low-income strata, my housing is probably going to be rental housing, my housing is probably going to be older housing. Because I’m in poverty I’m limited to where I can reside, which steers me to areas with low maintenance.”
Older homes with peeling and poorly maintained lead paint — which can be ingested by young children — is a major contributor to lead poisoning in Ohio, which affects thousands of Ohio children each year, including hundreds in area counties.
But the total number of local children poisoned by lead is unknown. A 2014 investigation by this newspaper found less than one-third of the children under age 3 living in the 324 ZIP codes identified as having an increased risk of lead poisoning were being tested.
The state has since taken steps to reach more kids, educating parents and healthcare providers that testing is legally required for children at ages 1 and 2 who are on Medicaid, or who live in older homes or in high-risk ZIP codes.
But the number of children being tested has not increased. A 2012 study by ODH, for example, found that 6,797 children were tested for lead in their blood that year, though twice that number of children ages 1 and 2 were estimated to be living in high-risk areas. In 2014, only 6,693 kids were tested.
“I’m sure there’s more we can be doing,” said Dayton community activist the Rev. Darryl Fairchild, who lives not far from the city’s highest-risk block. “In light of what’s happening in Flint, I think the community needs to be more urgent.”
Belt said that compared to other states, Ohio has been proactive in addressing the lead threat, “but we know we can improve on those numbers.”
“Our efforts are focused around increasing the blood lead testing rate of children who are at risk for lead poisoning,” Belt said. “We still are not testing 100 percent of those children who should be tested.”
He added: “There’s no safe level of lead in a child’s blood.”
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