Loading shopping carts with Christmas toys, parents often pay more attention to lead concerns at the holidays than at other times of year. After all, we've all seen media reports about scares over lead toxicity in some toys and children's trinkets.
But some medical authorities in Western New York said this week that lead levels should be a concern for parents of young children all the time -- not just at the holidays. And, they said, there is a new effort under way in some pediatricians' offices around the region to make lead-testing for children quick, easy -- and much more convenient.
The new effort allows doctors to test children for lead with a small machine located right in the pediatricians' office, without having to send samples to a lab or have the patient go off-site for a blood draw. Results come in three minutes, not days.
"You can get lead poisoning from a lot of other things besides toys," said Nancy L. Schoellkopf, a registered nurse who is a specialist at BlueCross BlueShield of Western New York in the area of preventative health. "It should be addressed at all times of year -- not just at Christmastime."
Lead levels are of concern for children because lead in a child's body -- especially before age 2 -- can cause problems including physical, developmental and cognitive delays. Lead can be found in households in paint, especially older paint.
Schoellkopf is one of the staff members at BlueCross BlueShield who spearheaded an effort to distribute eight of the high-tech lead testing devices -- toaster-sized machines that sell for more than $2,000 apiece -- to local pediatricians' offices in Western New York. The outreach happened over the last six months, in offices ranging from the city of Buffalo to rural communities.
The idea behind the effort is to make it easy for parents to have their children screened for lead exposure -- as New York State requires, twice before the child is 2 -- and to have a blood test if needed, all during a regular visit to a doctor's office.
"The ultimate goal is to have our members stay healthy," said Schoellkopf. "To have these kids get tested in the easiest possible way. They are already there for immunizations, anyway."
Lead should be a concern for parents in Western New York, according to experts at the Western New York Lead Poisoning Prevention Resource Center, which is located on Niagara Street in Buffalo.
Data shows that lead levels here in individuals are dropping, which is good, said Dr. Melinda S. Cameron, a pediatrician who serves as medical director of the center.
But, she said, the newest thinking on lead exposure is that any level at all is problematic for health and development, and that makes Buffalo and Western New York a place with plenty of potential toxicity due to the area's older housing stock.
"In Buffalo, our houses are old," said Cameron. "Under the newer paint, there is older paint. One of the bigger sources we find is in window wells, stairwells, porches. Lead can also be inhaled, if work is being done [on walls or houses] in the wrong way."
Kids nowadays still come in contact with lead much the same way they have for years: by ingesting or breathing it in.
"The way that most children get it is by ingestion," said Cameron. "They are eating paint chips, or there is dust and dirt on their hands and they are putting their hands in their mouth, sucking their thumbs, things like that."
One growing segment of the population that is of concern to the area's lead level specialists is the region's immigrant populations, said Cameron.
"A large percentage of the children we're treating now are refugee children, because they are living in some of the older, less-cared-for housing," the doctor said. "Some of these families are coming from areas of the world where [lead] is not known to be a problem."
In any event, Cameron said, any increase in the amount of screening done for the area's children is a good thing, because that's the best way to catch problems in time.
"Once kids show symptoms of lead poisoning, their levels are very high. Looking for symptoms is not the way to diagnose it," Cameron said. "Screening is really the way to go."