Lead poisoning is often discussed in the wake of an environmental emergency such as the Flint, Michigan, Newark, New Jersey, and the District of Columbia water crises. While these tragedies showcase the effect of lead poisoning on a national scale, the truth is Utah children are at risk of being poisoned every day in their own communities. Remember the Sandy water contamination last year?
There is no safe level of lead. If children and adults are regularly exposed to lead, it accumulates in their bodies causing irreversible damage. Particularly vulnerable to this damage are the developing nervous systems of young children and fetuses, leading to lower IQ scores, ADHD, aggression and other behavior disorders.
While news headlines commonly highlight lead contamination in drinking water, the most common source of lead poisoning is from paint in homes built before 1978. As paint dust and chips are ingested or inhaled, the impact of lead begins to take its toll. Other common sources of lead include soil, ammunition, home remedies, spices and toys.
Blood testing is the only way to know if a child has been exposed. Unlike some states, Utah does not require blood lead testing of all children. While a federal mandate requires all children on Medicaid insurance to be tested at 1 and 2 years of age, Utah is far below the national average for testing children. In 2018, only 3.8% of Utah children 5 years and younger had a blood lead test reported to the state. More importantly, from 2016 to 2018, around 2% of all Utah children tested had an elevated blood lead level. Equally concerning, two recent Salt Lake County studies evaluating the last 20 years of data show that up to 2.8% of all children tested had elevated levels.
Luckily, lead poisoning is preventable. Senate Joint Resolution 2 sponsored by Utah State Sen. Jani Iwamoto, D-Salt Lake City, encourages actions to reduce the number of Utah children with elevated blood lead levels, by promoting education and providing tools on lead awareness and testing. This resolution would lay the foundation for changes needed to protect Utah children from this often invisible poison.
Another piece of legislation this session helping prevent lead exposure in children is HB88, sponsored by State Rep. Stephen Handy, R-Layton. This bill would require testing of school and daycare drinking water for lead contamination with required action if the lead content was above a certain level. Rep. Handy became concerned in 2017 after voluntary testing of school water in 75% of Utah schools showed that 92% of the samples had detectable lead levels. In response to this study, the Utah Department of Environmental Quality Division of Drinking Water, or DEQ, was awarded a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency to test schools and childcare facilities that agree to participate for lead contaminated water. This initiative combined with HB88 shows that Utah’s legislation is taking lead prevention seriously.
These initiatives could mark a turning point for Utah’s efforts against lead poisoning. While many organizations such as the Utah Lead Coalition and the Salt Lake County Lead Safe Housing Program have been increasing awareness, these proposals generate momentum to give lead poisoning the attention it deserves.
Every Utah child deserves a safe place to learn, adapt and grow. To help build this momentum, everyone should pick up their phone, call their legislators or schools and support these initiatives.
Bert Merrill is the education and outreach coordinator for Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment.
Claudia Fruin is a pediatrician and founder and chair of Utah Lead Coalition.