MANSFIELD -- Ask Laura Corbett if childhood lead poisoning is a health issue in Richland County and she won’t sugarcoat it.
“Yes,” said Corbett, a nurse and educator at Richland Public Health.
Lead poisoning can have serious health consequences, especially for children under the age of 6.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention use a reference level of 5 micrograms per deciliter to identify children with blood lead levels that are higher than normal.
Fifty children in Richland County met this threshold last year, but Corbett thinks that many children go untested.
“We suspect that there are more children with lead issues than we know of,” she said.
She added that many area renters are unaware of the risk of lead exposure is higher in older homes.
Kimberley Stansilo, director of the Ashland School of Nursing, reported last year that between 20 and 25 percent of students in the Mansfield City Schools could have been exposed to lead. She based that figure on a study of students at Sherman Elementary School.
While the side effects and statistics can be scary, the CDC states that childhood lead exposure is “100% preventable." The key is keeping children from coming into contact with lead.
What causes lead poisoning?
According to the Ohio Department of Health, deteriorating lead-based paint and its resulting lead dust are the most common causes of lead poisoning among Ohio children.
Although consumer use of lead-based paint was banned by the federal government in 1978, lead dust can still be found in homes built prior that have peeling or chipped paint. If the paint peels and cracks, it creates lead dust that can be swallowed or inhaled. It can also leak into the soil from exterior lead-based paint, industrial pollution and past use of leaded gasoline.
It doesn’t take much to raise the amount of lead in a child’s blood to a dangerous level.
“The amount of lead dust that it takes to poison a small child would fit on the head of a pin,” said Corbett.
She advised that children always wash their hands after playing outside and before eating.
Some children have been exposed because their parents work in an environment with lead dust and bring it home with them.
“We are in an area that had a lot of manufacturing years ago. It used to be in the gasoline, it used to be in the paint,” Corbett said. “Once you put it out there, it’s still there. It doesn’t just go away.”
Another potential source of lead exposure is drinking water contaminated by lead leaching from lead pipes, solder, brass fixtures or valves. Lead was legally permitted in plumbing materials until 1986.
What can I do?
While child lead poisoning is a serious concern, it can also be easily prevented.
Corbett advised tenants in older buildings to keep an eye out for potential sources of lead dust, such as chipped paint on the inside or outside of the home. Keep children away from chipping or peeling paint.
The EPA also suggests regularly cleaning floors, window sills, and other surfaces, as well as children's toys.
Residents of older homes can reduce the risk of lead-based paint exposure by painting and panelling over lead-based paint, but caution is necessary during home repairs. Lead dust can be created and spread when painted surfaces are sanded or cut, so children should reside elsewhere during the home renovation process.
Families with Medicaid eligible children or pregnant women can access funding to help cover the cost of lead paint testing and hazard removal through a statewide grant from the Ohio Department of Health. This program is open to both renters and homeowners through the health department. The Richland County Land Bank is also working on safely demolishing a number of hazardous homes.
Corbett encouraged parents to be aware of lead poisoning symptoms such as severe acting out, sudden personality changes, hearing loss and changes in a child’s diet. If a child has excessive cravings for milk or starts eating things that aren’t food, it may mean they are seeking the things that will help their bodies rid the lead from their system.
“You can get (lead) out of your body with a particular diet,” Corbett said. “It binds with iron and calcium-rich foods -- green leafy vegetables, milk, a multivitamin with iron also helps.”
Corbett cautioned that diet shouldn’t be used as a means to continue living in a toxic environment.
“You can’t stay in the environment where you’re poisoned, because then it's just a cycle,” she said.
If a parent believes their child has been exposed to lead, the health department recommends getting the child tested. Corbett said most family doctors offer these tests and Medicaid covers these tests for children ages six and under.
For more tips on prevention of lead poisoning, click here.