With lead poisoning still the biggest environmental health hazard for children in Maryland, state health officials are requiring children as young as 1 and 2 years old to be tested.
The state previously recommended testing at 6 years old.
The change was made after Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan issued a proclamation on Oct. 26 calling for “all Maryland children to be tested at ages 1 and 2, no matter where they live,” under the new Lead Testing Targeting Plan for Childhood Lead. That plan is a step further from existing lead poisoning prevention initiatives under which children living only in “at risk” ZIP codes or those enrolled in Medicaid were tested.
Lois Wessel, nurse practitioner at the Mid-Atlantic Center for Children’s Health and the Environment at Georgetown University in Washington, said that the main reason why the age of testing was lowered was to ensure early earlier detection and treatment.
“We want to screen them early on to see if they have elevated levels,” she said. “By the time they are five or six, they have a high lead level. There would already be neurological damage.”
Mid-Atlantic is one of the two designated centers to implement the program. The other is the Mt. Washington Pediatric Hospital in Cheverly, Md.
Exposure to lead is still the most significant and widespread environmental threat to children’s health in Maryland, although preventive steps have lowered lead exposure and lead poisoning, according to a report by the Maryland Department of Environment released in July.
“The biggest source of lead poisoning is homes built before the ‘70s,” Wessel pointed out.
In addition, the paint and plastic in children’s toys could contain lead.
One- and 2-year-old children are at a higher risk, “because they can put things in their mouths,” she said. Children’s bodies are smaller, so a little bit of lead could cause significant neurological problems, she said.
Early symptoms could include developmental delays, learning difficulties, weight loss, hearing loss and abdominal pain, Wessel added.
“When the child is one or two we can perhaps find the source of the lead in the home and eliminate that source,” she said.
Lead could also be present in residential backyards and playgrounds that had old houses or structures with the paint chipped off contaminating the surrounding soil.
“If you’re growing vegetables or something in the soil, that can absorb some of the lead and then certainly there’s lead in water pipes,” Wessel said. She added that nearly 20 percent of lead poisoning was caused by lead in old plumbing from the 1930s or earlier.
“We live in a very old part of the country where many of the old copper pipes were soldered with lead,” she said. “There’s still household ducts that come from lead and lead paint chips because our houses are so old.”
In fact, the lead from gasoline and lead paint is still a major problem around highways and urban settings, she said.
Last year, 527,304 children were tested statewide, of which 1.8 percent were found to have lead levels between 5 to 9 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood. About 0.3 percent of children had levels higher than 10.
Howard Haft, deputy secretary for public health services at the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene in Baltimore, said that lead levels as low as between 5 and 9 micrograms “have important negative effects on children’s cognitive ability on their brain function, their ability to be successful and as fully bright and as able as they should be.”
Another concern is identifying children coming in from other parts of world where they may have been exposed to lead, Haft said.
“Some candies that come from other parts of the world like Mexico can be a source as well,” Wessel said.
Haft said that the new state program is aimed at ensuring that not only are children in high-density older housing areas tested, but also children in all the other houses in Maryland get the same medical scrutiny.
“We’ve gotten rid of 95 or 98 percent of lead but there’s still some around,” he said.
By Sharadha Kalyanam