Knitted in the Womb is happy to share this guest post from Steve Riedy of Steve’s Painting Service, LLC. Steve’s Painting Service, LLC is a Residential Re-Paint (RRP) Lead Free EPA Certified Firm.
Social media is buzzing with concerned parents who saw a report that 18 cities in Pennsylvania have more kids with elevated lead levels in their blood than Flint, Michigan.
Understandably, this has people concerned, especially here in the Lehigh Valley. As a father and a professional painter, I understand this concern. Lead poisoning in children can lead to symptoms that resemble ADHD, can impair a child’s ability to learn, and has even been linked to an increased tendency to commit crimes as an adult. None of us want that for our children!
Why does Pennsylvania have so many cities where many children have elevated lead levels? Well unlike Flint, Michigan, where the source of the lead contamination was the water pipes; the primary source of lead contamination in PA is lead based paint. Data from the 2010 Census showed that Pennsylvania ranks third in the nation for having the most housing units built before 1950 (36%) and fourth in the nation for having the most housing units built before 1978 (70%). Many people mistakenly think that the only risk is when paint flakes off, and young children eat the chips directly. However, the paint can slowly wear off as doors and windows are opened and closed, creating a dust settles onto the child’s toys where it again is consumed, or onto the floor where it gets onto crawling children’s hands that they then put into their mouths. Exposure to lead is usually a long term cumulative problem, not a single event of eating a few flakes.
So what can you do if you think your child is at risk of having elevated lead levels? First you should contact your pediatrician to discuss testing. Testing involves taking a small sample of blood, and is relatively inexpensive. Children’s blood lead levels tend to peak when they are about 2 years old, then will naturally decline since they aren’t putting as many non-edible objects into their mouth, and the body will naturally remove lead.
Proactive things you can do to prevent elevated levels in your child are:
- Check your home for lead based paint using test swabs that you can obtain from a home improvement store or Amazon.
- Feed your child a balanced diet including plenty of calcium and iron, as this can reduce absorption of lead.
- Remove your shoes when you enter your home to avoid tracking contaminated soil inside. Also wash your hands after working or playing outside.
- If your home was built before 1978, be very diligent about changing the filter on your heating/cooling system monthly if you have forced air, and be sure to use HEPA filters. (Little known fact…if you don’t change your filter frequently enough, it may cause your blower to completely seize up and get distorted, leading to a very expensive repair. Don’t ask me how I know this… 😉 )
- In some cities in PA, including Allentown and Bethlehem, you may be eligible to get funding to help reduce lead hazards in your home through the Lead Hazard Control Program.
- If your home was built before 1978, when you are doing any home remodeling projects, it is best to wet down any surfaces that might contain lead prior to cutting or sanding them. Even carpets should be misted with water prior to ripping them up. Be meticulous about cleaning up any dust using damp cloths, or a vacuum equipped with a HEPA filter. Avoid sweeping up dust, as this will make it airborne.
- If your home was built before 1978, hire only home improvement contractors who are certified to work with lead based paint. A painting contractor who has this certification is allowed to use this logo in their advertising materials:
This is Jenn taking over now to tackle something I love to do–plugging & chugging numbers, and evaluating the quality of data behind research or media reports.
Most of all, I would encourage most parents to remember that the media makes their money out of creating a strong emotional response, when a thoughtful response might be less distressed. It is said many times that there are three types of lies: Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics. I think in this situation, misuse of statistics are getting things all messed up.
Yes, 1 in 4 children in Allentown who were tested for lead levels showed elevated levels, and for those children, we are concerned, and in fact those of us who are so privileged as to be taking the time to read social media stories should realize that we need to speak up on behalf of these children. But the little details in that statement are important. Is this data REALLY comparable to the reported rate of 3.21% of children in Flint Michigan having elevated blood lead levels? It turns out that its not, and that with the data available, it is impossible to make an apples to apples comparison between Flint and PA data.
The first problem is that the 3.21% figure used by the Vox reporter Sarah Frostenson is data that was released by the State of Michigan specifically to refute a “whistle blower’s” claim that children in Flint were experiencing increased cases of elevated lead levels. In other words–this data was specifically mined–mixing high and low risk neighborhoods–to make it appear that FEWER children had elevated lead levels than really did. Further, this data was for children ages 16 and younger, while the data Frostenson used from PA is for children 7 and under. This is a significant error, because as children age they are less likely to consume lead dust from toys or their hands, so their lead levels drop.
The data from the whistle blowers–Hurley Children’s Hospital and Michigan University, found that in high risk neighborhoods, up to 6.2% of children ages 5 and under measured had elevated lead levels; but this was likely a significant underestimate due to formula fed infants who consume a large amount of tap water not being tested because they weren’t “old enough” to have been tested yet.
Using the same PA Department of Health report that Frostenson used, I was able to calculate that in the 20 cities she featured, 3.8% of children under the age of 7 who were tested had lead levels above 10 microgram per deciliter, while only 2.2% of children aged 16 and under had this elevated level–a decrease of 42%. Unfortunately there is not similarly comparable data given at the 5 microgram per deciliter level, but I think it would be a reasonable expectation that we’d see the number of children diagnosed at that level drop a similar amount.
In addition to this, the PA Dept of Health report does not specify how the 5 microgram per deciliter numbers were measured. Based on comparisons of various charts in the report (page 45 and 50), it is a reasonable guess that they come from single “finger stick tests,” which have been shown to have an up to 70% false positive rate. What this means is that finger stick testing is merely a screening test, and that when children test positive to this test, they should then be re-tested via a more accurate venous blood draw, significantly reducing the number that show an elevated blood lead level.
Finally, this consideration applies to the data for both Flint and PA. Not all children are tested–in fact, only about 1 in 5 children in Allentown are tested. In addition to this, the children tested were nor a “representative sample” of all children in the region. Because Medicaid rules* in PA require lead testing of children on Medicaid at ages 1 and 2, children who are tested are more likely than the general population to fall into the highest risk group–that is, children who are more likely to live in poorly maintained older homes–usually rental units. We should also realize that this finding was a clustered finding. Overall, in PA, of these high risk children who were tested, fewer than 1 in 10 had elevated blood levels on initial tests, and less than 1 in 7 children were tested.
The bottom line as I see it, is that once we get accurate levels of exposed children in Flint, we will be horrified at how many are affected. As for the real numbers of children exposed in PA…they are MUCH lower than reported in the chart in Vox.
Be sure to contact Steve’s Painting Service, LLC for all your painting needs! Steve’s Painting does commercial and residential painting jobs, interior and exterior, and always offers free quotes. Call 610-762-6049 now!
*Though this is the “official” rule, it is often not implemented as mandatory testing, but rather testing that is offered. As a result, the total number of children tested is lower than the total number of children on Medicaid in PA.