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DC's Lead Poisoning Problem
Officials are finally addressing DC’s lead-poisoning problem. Will they do what it takes to save more kids from brain damage? By John Pekkanen
Comments () | Published August 1, 2008
Under a new contract with the District, Harrison Newton of LeadSafe DC checks for lead-paint residue in the home of a child whose blood tested positive for lead. Photograph by Matthew Worden.

Lead is this country’s biggest environmental-health hazard for children. If kids are exposed to too much lead, it causes irreversible harm to developing brains.

Even at very low levels once thought to be safe, lead can result in diminished IQ, school failure, and behavioral disorders.

Two studies published this spring reaffirm the finding that adolescents and young adults are far more likely to commit crimes and be violent if they tested positive for lead in early childhood. In fact, early lead poisoning may be a more reliable predictor of antisocial behavior than the socioeconomic factors usually cited as underlying causes of crime.

As adults, lead-poisoned children are at greater risk of stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, high blood pressure, and premature death, according to a study by Ellen Silbergeld of Johns Hopkins and Mark Lustberg of the University of Maryland.

Like kids everywhere, most Washington-area children are lead poisoned when they come in contact with deteriorating lead-based paint from walls, floors, and ceilings of homes built before 1978, the year the federal government outlawed lead in residential paint. One estimate is that three-fourths of DC dwellings were built before 1978. Children under age two are at highest risk. Many toddlers are poisoned when they put their fingers in their mouths after crawling on a dusty floor.

Although lead’s hazards have been recognized for many years, the District government—through a combination of bureaucratic indifference and ineptitude—has long failed to protect children.

Children are still poisoned by lead every day in the District, sometimes in the same houses where other children were poisoned. In August 2006, The Washingtonian published a major article about how area children, especially in the District, are being poisoned by lead. In August 2007, the first year of Mayor Adrian Fenty’s administration, a Washingtonian story reported that little was being done to protect DC children. This year there is evidence that the District is finally moving to protect children from lead poisoning.

Because of many uncertainties, including unreliable recordkeeping, it is unknown how many of the District’s 40,000 children under age six have been lead tested. In 2007, 11,958 were tested, according to DC’s Department of Health. Eighty-three were found to have lead levels of ten micrograms per deciliter (mcg/dl) or greater—the “action level” designated by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Another 658 were found to have blood-lead levels of five to nine mcg/dl. Evidence strongly suggests that blood-lead levels of less than ten mcg/dl also can seriously harm children. 

A seminal study in 2003 by Dr. Bruce Lanphear, director of the Cincinnati Children’s Environmental Health Center at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, found that blood-lead levels below the CDC action level caused enough harm to result in developmental delays. Other studies have confirmed Lanphear’s findings, and there is evidence that developing brains can be harmed even at blood-lead levels below five mcg/dl. It is now widely accepted that there is no safe lead level for children.

Over the years, thousands of District children have been exposed to enough lead to cause brain damage. This is one likely but largely unrecognized reason why 12,000 District students are in special education and 86 percent of DC fourth-graders cannot read at grade level.

When the Fenty administration took office in January 2007, it promised to move on DC’s lead-poisoning problem in the first 100 days. It did not. But in recent months it has begun gearing up on several fronts.

“I have a lot of hope about what the District government is doing right now, and I could not have said this two years ago,” says Ralph Scott, community projects director for the Alliance for Healthy Homes and longstanding member of the Lead Screening Advisory Committee. “The first step in fixing something as broken as the city’s child-lead programs is to have people in charge who have a genuine wish to solve the problem and have the intelligence to know how to do it, and we now have that.”

One big problem with DC’s child-lead programs is that parts of it were scattered among agencies that often failed to coordinate and at times were openly hostile to one another. In some cases, different components of child-lead programs in the same agency failed to coordinate. As a result, child-lead cases that first came to the attention of DC’s Department of Health (DOH) ran into a bureaucratic snarl when they were transferred to the new District Department of the Environment (DDOE) for home lead-paint-risk inspections. If an inspection found lead hazards, enforcement rested with the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA), which sometimes acted and sometimes did not. If a home needed remediation to rid it of a lead-paint hazard, this information went to the Department of Housing and Community Affairs (DHCA), which had US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) grants for this purpose. As recently as a year ago, cases fell through the cracks so often that HUD threatened to quit funding the program because the DHCA wasn’t using it enough.

Moving a child-lead case through “the system” was like sending a steel ball skittering through a pinball machine. The chances it would hit the jackpot and win inspection and remediation of a lead-paint problem were slim. The chances that anything positive at all would happen were not much better.

District agencies that once seemed antagonistic to one another now talk regularly. They are sometimes joined by a private-sector group of child-lead advocates that includes pediatricians and members of the public-health and nonprofit communities. The DDOE issues a twice-monthly report about what’s going on in the different agencies regarding children and lead. An epidemiologist has been hired to clean up and clarify the statistics on child-lead testing, and regular updates on test results are included in the reports.

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Posted at 12:00 AM/ET, 08/01/2008 RSS | Print | Permalink | Washingtonian.com Articles