Maryland’s Investment in Universal Lead Screening Will Pay Back in Spades

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Soon, all Maryland children ages 1 and 2 will be tested for lead poisoning like three Baltimore City kids.
Soon all Maryland children ages 1 and 2 will be tested for lead poisoning like these three Baltimore City kids. (Yep – they’re mine)

Here’s a statistic that may floor you: 500,000 U.S. kids have elevated levels of lead in their blood (5+ mcg/dL).  On Tuesday, we reported that during National Lead Poisoning Prevention Week Governor Hogan announced that all Maryland 1- and 2- year-olds will now be tested for lead poisoning. To date, only children from Baltimore City, Baltimore County, and high risk neighborhoods were required to test for lead.

Maryland reports a 98 percent drop in new childhood lead poisoning cases. But that is of those who were tested, which in 2014 was 20 percent of Maryland’s children ages 0-6.  For every $1 invested in lead prevention, taxpayers achieve a $214 payback. A simple pin-prick test costing $16.47* seems a smart investment to identify those children exposed to lead. More importantly, universal screening will help communities pinpoint which residences require lead remediation in order to eliminate childhood lead poisoning.

Lead Poisoning is brutal

Lead is found naturally in our environment in trace amounts in the dirt and the air, but the metal is toxic in humans and animals. The primary source of lead exposure is lead-based paint flakes and dust. 

Three quarters of Maryland residences were built before 1979, about the year that lead was phased out of paint (and gasoline, too). For perspective, 55 percent of West Coast homes were built before 1979. Baltimore City actually banned lead paint use in 1950.

In truth, no amount of lead in a human is safe. The chemical, a metal, is a neurotoxin affecting brain development, especially in smaller and growing kids. From behavior issues, ADHD, lower I.Q., poor reading skills, to poor interpersonal skills, lead poisoning’s consequences are irreversible, and can permanently alter a person’s ability to reach their full potential.

Lead poisoning was brought to light this April with the death of Freddie Gray. At 22-months-old, it’s reported that Freddie Gray’s blood lead level was 37 mcg/dL, with 5 being the level the CDC recommends action.

Maryland’s gap in testing

Since 2004, children in both Baltimore City and Baltimore County have been tested for lead based on three criteria: residing in “at risk” zip codes, Medicaid recipients, or a positive response to the Risk Assessment Questionnaire at a child’s health check up. Of Maryland’s 23 remaining counties that have not required testing until now, kids who lived in residences that met the above criteria were also tested.

The result of focusing on the above criteria is that in 2014, 20 percent of our state’s 525,000 kids ages 0-6 were tested.

The good news is that lead poisoning cases has fallen dramatically, yet even last year 2,359 children reported blood lead levels higher than 5 mcg/dL, and of those, 355 children reported levels higher than 10 mcg/dL.

Maryland’s heavy metal rock star

One of our country’s leaders in in eliminating lead poisoning is Maryland’s-own Ruth Ann Norton. Since 1993, she has tirelessly educated, legislated, and championed strong regulations and policies to eradicate lead poisoning. President and CEO of the national Green & Healthy Homes Initiative, she’s been a key player in Maryland’s successful 98 percent drop in lead poisoning rates.

When asked what has fueled her 22-year commitment to eliminating lead poisoning, she said, “Maybe it’s the way my heart works, but I don’t see how we can expect children to grow up and be constructive citizens if we ill-equip them by harming the basics of thinking, reading and reason. We all lose a tremendous amount. We can only blame ourselves because childhood lead poisoning is preventable. I think it’s our society’s moral obligation.” Norton added that universal screening is a guide, and that our children aren’t canaries in a coal mine. Norton said, “The testing investment in all Maryland counties is a good policy that needs to be supported with programs to ensure all Maryland families live in healthy and safe homes.”

Baltimore’s $4 million lead abatement funds

Two excellent resources that Baltimore County and Baltimore City property owners can utilize when remediating lead is Lead Safe Baltimore County and Lead Hazard Reduction Program. Both programs help property owners remediate lead, and were recently awarded a $4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.  When asked the question what would she fix if she had a magic wand, Ms. Norton replied, “I’d launch a nationwide window program, and get rid of old windows laced with lead paint.”

* $16.47 is a price benchmark only. This value is the repayment amount Quest Diagnostics is reimbursed for one child’s blood lead test under Medicaid. Prices will vary for different insurance coverages.

Laurel Peltier
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Laurel Peltier

Laurel writes the environmental GreenLaurel column every other Thursday in the Baltimore Fishbowl. A graduate of UVA's MBA program, she spends her time with her family and making "all things green" interesting.
Laurel Peltier
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