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As lead lingers as threat to children, Erie County launches campaign to assess homes and help parents

Aaron King started noticing the difficulties when his son, Aaron Jr., was about 2. “I was scared for my son, wondering why his speech wasn’t right,” King said. “It seemed something was wrong.”

He took the boy for a checkup, which included a blood test for lead exposure. Aaron Jr. had a lead level of 5, right on the line for concern. Below 5 micrograms of lead per deciliter is considered not too threatening. Health care experts say levels between 5 and 9 bear watching. And a level of 10 or above is cause for aggressive intervention.

King said that he talked to friends about his son’s test.

“People said, ‘Oh, that’s average for a 2-year-old,’ ” King recalled, indicating how common lead exposure still is in some Buffalo neighborhoods.

But after the Kings moved to an upstairs apartment in an old house off Bailey Avenue, Aaron Jr.’s lead level got higher.

It went to 7, then 15, then 19, King said.

“He was looking out the window a lot, and that’s where the lead was,” King said. “I block it with a dresser now.”

More than three decades after the federal government banned the commercial sale of lead paint, and almost 20 years after the toxic metal was taken out of gasoline, pediatricians continue to find elevated levels of lead in the blood of their tiniest and often poorest patients.

In 2002, 546 of the children tested in Erie County showed elevated levels of lead in their blood.

After the Health Department targeted 5,600 houses in the neighborhoods with the highest concentration of cases, officials confirmed 275 cases of lead poisoning in children in 2013, a 50 percent decrease since 2002. But even with the decline, the number of cases frustrates health professionals, because lead poisoning is almost completely preventable.

Many young parents, born long after lead paint was a major public health issue, are not aware that their children are at risk.

As a way to get the message to a new generation of parents, Erie County will use a recently awarded $3 million federal grant to assess local homes for lead and help mitigate the risk to children living in them.

In an ideal world, any possible lead contamination would be stopped before children are exposed to the poison, because once a child tests positive for lead, everything that comes afterward is damage control, said Melanie P. Desiderio, an associate public health sanitarian for Erie County.

“There is no safe level of lead,” she said bluntly.

A new campaign

There is no cure for lead poisoning. In young children, its consequences can be tragic and irreversible – including permanent brain damage, nerve damage and hearing loss.

Dr. Gale Burstein, Erie County’s health commissioner, called education vital to eliminating lead poisoning.

“The brain is developing at this time, and the effects are more severe,” in younger children, she said.

All children should be tested when they are about 12 months old, she said. Crawling on the floor, handling surfaces and putting objects and dusty fingers in their mouths are the main routes for lead ingestion.

A simple finger prick test can indicate whether more testing is needed. It is easy, inexpensive and potentially life saving.

As Burstein said, “We think every child deserves to have the IQ they were born with.”

In the mid-20th century, researchers realized that children were suffering significant brain damage and demonstrating behavior issues after ingesting lead from peeling and disintegrating paint in their homes. In addition, one report to Congress estimated that, in the 60 years from 1927 to 1987, 68 million children had toxic lead exposure just from gasoline fumes.

Erie County’s new “Wipe Out Lead” campaign seeks to identify and mitigate the lead threat in nearly 200 houses and alert parents to the danger. Across the city, the image of a baby with a quizzical expression looks out from billboards and bus shelters to remind parents that little onescould be ingesting lead dust and flakes of disintegrating lead paint.

Such campaigns are important in cities like Buffalo, where much of the housing was built not just before 1980, but even before 1940, during a time when lead paint was the coating of choice.

“We have a presumption that prior to 1978, exterior paint had lead in it,” Desiderio said. “There is a 90 percent chance that the house was originally painted with lead paint, and clapboards will have the lead leached into them.”

Indoors in some homes, the paint that was once billed as “the best choice for homeowners,” according to the website, can be found in layer upon layer, with those layers particularly visible on high-use surfaces like sliding windows and door frames, where it is slowly pulverized and broadcast into the environment.

“In general, what we are asking is for people to paint their houses,” Desiderio said.

Sources of poison

Desiderio has seen all sorts of lead poisoning cases during her work with the county.

“The most prevalent pathway by far is the dust from paint and from soil tracked in from outside,” especially dirt from “drip paths” alongside the houses, she said.

But Desiderio also has seen more unusual sources of the poison. “We’ve had several cases where there’s been lead in imported spices,” she said, including one instance in which the FDA wound up banning leaded turmeric from a supplier in Southeast Asia.

Lead has also been discovered in homeopathic medicines used in some cultures to treat common ailments, and in make-up, like the kohl used around eyes. Desiderio recalled one puzzling case that was solved when health workers realized the child was being exposed while cuddling with his father, who was using hair dye containing lead. Another case occurred in a newer suburban home. The lead was traced to an imported pot the parents were using to heat baby formula.

The Health Department tracks the results of some 20,000 lead tests a year. Between 2001 and 2006, at least 2 percent of those tested showed elevated lead levels. But since 2007, less than 2 percent had high levels.

The 275 children with high lead levels in 2013 – 1.4 percent of the 20,166 children tested – marked the lowest number in at least 13 years. In 2001, 2.4 percent of children tested showed high lead levels.

Interventions range from regular testing to changing a child’s diet and making physical improvements to the home to keep the lead contained.

For Aaron King, making home improvements might not be enough. He said his landlord has told him he will look into the lead problem at the Bailey area apartment, where layers of old paint are turning into powder on the windowsills and peeling in sheets along a stairwell. There is a gaping hole in the kitchen floor that he has covered with a piece of plywood.

There are other problems in the apartment, and it has been hard to limit Aaron Jr.’s exposure in the small space.

So King is trying to find another place to live.

Meanwhile, he keeps the apartment free of dust and buys foods high in iron and calcium, as recommended by the Health Department case worker who helps him manage his son’s care.

“He’s a little behind, but his teachers are working with him,” King said of his son, now 3 years old.

“His level is still 19,” King said. “I don’t let him near the window. I can’t even bring him on the porch, it’s got lead paint. I don’t let him have cheap toys – nothing from the dollar store, nothing made in China. But his lead is still high. I worry about him. It’s too much.”