Children in Utah are at risk for lead poisoning. In the last two years, with encouragement from members of the Utah Lead Coalition, the number of children being tested has tripled. Even with only 3 percent of preschool-aged children being tested and reported in Utah, the data is quite concerning. Approximately 2 percent of the tested children have elevated blood lead levels. Since we have approximately 300,000 children 5 years and younger in Utah, this translates to around 6,000 preschool age children potentially affected by lead poisoning. There is no safe level of lead and it is more toxic to young children’s developing nervous systems leading to lower IQ scores, and behavioral disorders including ADHD and aggression. It affects nearly every organ system leading to kidney damage, hypertension and hearing loss. This is also true for adults.
Lead-based paint and contaminated house dust and soil from old paint are major sources of exposure for young children. Paint chips and dust can be ingested or inhaled by young children from both the interior and exterior of the home. More than half of the homes built prior to 1978, when lead-based paint was banned, have some lead-based paint. Homes built prior to 1960 have an even greater risk. Older homes undergoing renovation also pose a risk for lead exposure. In Utah more than half of the homes were built before 1978.
Water as a source of lead exposure has also come into the spotlight recently in Utah with the voluntary testing of school water showing 3 percent of samples elevated as well as the Sandy water crisis in February of this year. Aging pipes as well as older water fixtures may contain lead. Other common sources include toys, spices, pottery and ammunition. Beyond children, other high-risk populations include pregnant women and refugees. Lead crosses the placenta after 12 weeks gestation and can permanently affect a child before it is born.
Utah does not require routine blood lead testing on children or pregnant women. There is a federal mandate, however, that all 1 and 2-year olds on Medicaid insurance get tested, but in our state, this happens less than 25 percent of the time. The data we have collected in the last two years is concerning enough that Intermountain Healthcare pediatricians have made it a 2019 priority to test all 1 and 2-year olds at their well-child exams for lead poisoning.
As a comparison for health risk, the incidence of congenital Cytomegalovirus infection in Utah is around 1 in 150 births or around 0.67 percent. Congenital CMV can cause similar developmental delays and neurologic dysfunction like lead poisoning. In our state it has been mandated since 2013 that all children who fail their second newborn hearing screen get tested for a congenital CMV infection. Since the prevalence of lead poisoning in our children is likely three times the risk of congenital CMV, we need to do a better job with awareness, education and testing. Please make sure your health care provider is testing your child’s blood for lead exposure and if you are pregnant or planning a pregnancy, make sure you are either screened or tested for lead exposure.