By Oneida County Health Department

In 1978, federal laws banned lead in house paint and, shortly after, in consumer gasoline.  The reason was simple: it was making people sick, especially kids.  So, by now – four decades later – lead poisoning must have disappeared as a health threat for our children, right?

Not so. While many communities have made strides in reducing lead poisoning risk including increased testing, programs to identify hazards, and even new laws, it is an unfortunate fact that the risk of lead exposure in some neighborhoods is higher than it was a half century ago. Why?  Because much of the paint used before 1978 laws were put into place is still there, and about a half century older. It is in bad shape.

October 21-27 marks National Lead Poisoning Prevention Week — time to remember that lead poisoning is another of life’s obstacles that does not discriminate. It knows no boundaries in gender, race, wealth, education, geography, or age. And, it is still among our foremost threats to neighborhood stabilization, economic prosperity, and our children’s futures. 

Locally, Oneida County has watchdogs in place to identify and prevent lead poisoning before it ever occurs. One reason is because inner-city Utica lead exposure rates tend to be higher than other areas across the state that have younger housing, and just about half of Oneida County residents live in Utica’s 17 square miles. Be aware, lead exposure can and do occur anywhere, but older urban areas often feel the brunt of this environmental issue.

Oneida is one of only 15 counties in New York State with a Primary Prevention program. Primary Prevention provides home evaluations and education so properties are maintained and kids never have to go through the trauma of medical treatment for lead exposure in the first place. When that does happen, however, the County’s Secondary Prevention program helps families find and correct the source of lead poisoning immediately as timing is critical to a child’s developmental future when lead poisoning is the culprit.

Although Oneida County is fortunate to have a full-service Health Department and Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) working together to implement these services, much of the success of these programs is dependent upon the community’s engagement. Elsewhere, communities that fair the best are those that have created awareness among not only residents, but other sectors such as teachers, elected officials, health workers, contractors, counseling professionals, child-care providers, and the list goes on.

If you are a resident or worker in Oneida County, here are the TOP 10 THINGS you need to know about lead and lead poisoning:

1. Lead does not go away by itself. Lead lasts thousands of years.  Although it is a natural substance found deep within the earth, once we take it out and introduce it to society through manufacturing, it is ours to deal with…forever!  We have to watch it, maintain it, and keep it from getting into our bodies.

2. Lead poisoning lasts forever. Once lead has entered our bodies through ingestion (swallowing) or inhalation (breathing), we must also figure out how to manage it but, this time, medically! Thankfully there are ways to do that, but the longer we have been exposed or the more lead we have consumed, the more difficult that gets.

3. Paint and lead paint DUST are the most common sources of lead poisoning. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) calculates that 70% of all childhood lead poisoning comes from lead paint that has deteriorated into DUST. This is a hazard because dust is invisible, it moves with air currents, and it eventually settles on everything.

4. There are many other sources of lead poisoning.  We have used lead not just to make paint and gasoline, but a variety of other materials, too. The list includes plastics (PVC pipe, toys, hoses, mini blinds), metals (keys, ammunition, lead solder, plumbing pipes and fixtures), cosmetics (some makeup, cultural products, talcum powders), and even our foods (imported spices, garden vegetables, venison, seafood, and commercial foods including baby products). Why does lead get into food? Because leftover lead from old gasoline cycles through the air and soil, contaminated soil splashes on our gardens, and finally, because lead is known to enhance color, taste, and weight so it occasionally makes its way into spices or other commercial foods. 

5. Children and unborn children are most susceptible to lead poisoning.  First, children’s bodies do not develop the defense systems necessary to keep lead from entering their brains until they are about six.  Second, children essentially develop from the floor up! They crawl first, and everything they touch goes in their mouths. Young children explore and taste to learn.  Unfortunately, that is also how they ingest lead DUST.  Pregnant women can pass lead to their unborn baby or while nursing.

6. Lead poisoning can affect every organ and system in the human body.  Lead is a neuro-toxin that interrupts the development of children’s brains permanently, if not discovered early. It enters the bloodstream, moves to the organs and soft tissues, and eventually settles in the bones and teeth.

7. There are many signs of lead poisoning. Children’s behaviors, health, and learning ability all change with lead exposure. Symptoms may include mood swings, anger, tantrums, hearing problems, learning difficulties, relationship challenges, inability to focus, and even just “the blahs.” Over time, these poor social and learning behaviors can turn into bigger issues such as criminal tendencies or inability to keep a job. 

8. New York State law requires childhood testing at ages 1 and 2.  If your doctor does not order this test for your kids, you have the right to request it. You may also do so at older ages if you suspect lead exposure or see those symptoms described above.

9. Lead poisoning is 100% preventable.  Of all known childhood diseases, lead poisoning is one of the few that can be prevented. This requires awareness, home hygiene, personal hygiene, medical testing, and an ongoing effort by owners and tenants of pre-1978 housing to maintain properties by conducting all painting and repairs with simple precautions outlined by the EPA.

10. Help is available.  There are plenty of resources for residents, homeowners, contractors, and others.  

For free home lead evaluations in Utica, call CCE at 315-736-3394. For other resources and programs, on the web visit your local (www.ocgov.net/health/leadrecall ) or state health department (www.health.ny.gov/lead ).  Federal resources in the areas of health, construction, environmental, and landlord topics are available at www.cdc.gov or www.epa.gov.

*photo by Matt Ossowski

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