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Fewer than 3% of Utah kids are tested for lead poisoning

Experts believe thousands may be affected

Fewer than 3% of Utah kids are tested for lead poisoning.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

MURRAY — Fifty-eight percent of the homes in Utah were built before 1978, putting the people who live there — particularly 157,811 Utah children — at risk for lead poisoning.

“Even low levels of lead can cause permanent brain damage in kids,” said Claudia Fruin, founder and director of the Utah Lead Coalition, which aims to increase awareness that lead poisoning remains a serious issue in Utah.

“We need to make doctors do a better job of testing kids,” Fruin said Wednesday at the Lead Free Utah Conference held at Wheeler Farm. She said roughly 3% of Utah children under age 5 were tested for lead in 2017, and more than 2,000 in the Salt Lake Valley alone could have high enough levels of lead in their blood that it could cause lower IQ scores, attention deficit disorder and behavioral problems.

“I think it’s something people should be worried about,” Fruin said, adding that lead can cause kidney problems and heart problems, as well.

Lead at certain levels can damage a developing brain and has been tied to poor performance in school, which has the potential to land kids in trouble with the juvenile justice system and more.

“It is destroying futures,” said Mary Jean Brown, former chief of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Healthy Homes and Lead Poisoning Prevention program and a leading national expert on childhood lead poisoning.

In recent years, the CDC decreased the acceptable range of blood lead levels to 5 micrograms per deciliter from 10, though “no safe blood lead level in children has been identified,” it states. The agency pushes prevention as its main public health strategy, as lead poisoning “is entirely preventable,” Brown said.

“After immunizations are done, there aren’t many things where you know you can completely get rid of the risk like you can with lead,” she said.

Removing or mitigating lead exposure in a home, Brown said, can impact multiple generations.

“It’s not just removing old windows and lead-based paint,” said Randal Jepperson, Salt Lake County housing manager. “Proper diet and cleaning are just as important in making the home as lead-safe as possible.”

Salt Lake County’s Lead Safe Housing program aims to help low- to moderate-income families decrease lead exposure in their homes. Homes built prior to 1940, Jepperson said, have at least a 90 percent chance of containing potentially harmful lead.

Additionally, homes built before 1978 are also at risk, as lead was used in paint to make it more durable and pigmented.

Homes that old, Brown said, also aren’t always maintained well, which increases risk of exposure to lead.

To determine the risk, Danielle Lenz, an environmental scientist with the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, said experts can be brought in or samples of paint, dust, soil and water can be tested. Complete removal of any lead can be expensive and requires full containment to properly dispose of it. Another option, she said, is mitigation, as lead is only dangerous if it is exposed.

So, if the paint is in good condition, that should do, Lenz said, adding that window sills can be covered with a plastic shield, if necessary.

“It takes only a small amount ... you can’t even see it,” Brown said.

Young children are particularly at risk because they tend to put everything in their mouths and “lead tastes sweet to them,” Lenz said. And iron and calcium deficiencies can cause the body to absorb more of the lead a person is exposed to.

Brown said the federal Consumer Products Safety Division is testing and destroying toys and other products containing lead at the U.S. border, but “they can’t test everything.”

Even with the removal of lead-based products and tighter regulations, she said, a lot of lead remains in the system, being repurposed and sold as different items. It is also in the air, and in dust following renovation jobs at old sites.

“We have to be vigilant about this stuff,” Brown said. “We know what to do. We know where it needs to be done. We know what children will be affected. We should be about it.”

The Salt Lake County Lead Safe Housing program will host a neighborhood cleanup project at noon on Friday, Oct. 18, at Jordan Park, 1060 S. 900 West. The area of concern has a lot of homes built prior to 1960 and volunteers are welcome.