Study finds worrying blood lead levels in children in Berks County, especially in Reading | Environment
Reading has more children with high blood lead levels than anywhere else in Berks County and among the highest in the world, according to a study by a retired Kutztown University professor who specializes in medical geography. State.
And, in the city, blood lead levels are linked to some areas of great poverty with old buildings that are rental properties.
The highest percentage of children with elevated levels of lead in their blood is reported in downtown Reading census tracts along Penn Street between Eighth and 11th Streets and north of Perkiomen Avenue, according to maps developed by Dr. Robert Ziegenfus from unpublished data from the Pennsylvania Department of Health.
Ziegenfus has been studying blood levels for about a decade. The study was published in the newspaper Pennsylvania geographer. This is his fourth article in a series investigating blood lead levels in children in Pennsylvania.
From 2015 to 2017, 8.6% of all tests on children from birth to 5 years old in Berks confirmed elevated blood lead levels, 1,230 out of 14,246 tests.
This far exceeds the national rate for a similar period, 2013-2017, by 1%. As of 2012, the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has designated the level of concern for children at 5 micrograms per deciliter. Pennsylvania adopted this standard in 2014.
Ziegenfus wrote that the percentage of tests showing children with high blood lead levels in Berks is almost double that of the state, while Reading is 2.5 times that of the state.
Most of the children sampled lived in Reading. Ziegenfus wrote that 63.5% of all confirmed cases were from children living in Reading.
“Additionally, there were 380 other unconfirmed elevations that would almost surely increase the confirmed elevation if a confirmatory test had been administered,” he wrote.
Ziegenfus noted in his analysis that a higher percentage of high levels in children aged 3 and 4 could indicate that they were missed when they were younger.
The harm that is done
Even low levels of lead in the blood have been shown to affect IQ, the ability to pay attention, and academic performance.
Although the effects of lead poisoning are permanent, if caught early, there are ways to prevent further exposure and reduce damage to a child’s health, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Exposure is more harmful for children under the age of 6 because their bodies continue to develop and grow rapidly. No safe lead level in children has been identified.
The Ziegenfus study is the first time blood lead levels have been linked to census tracts in Berks. Ziegenfus said he hopes his analysis can help Reading prioritize efforts to prevent lead poisoning.
But that might just be the tip of the iceberg.
Ziegenfus said Pennsylvania has such a low lead testing rate that it’s difficult to get a more accurate picture of the problem.
In Reading, the percentage tested was 25% while that in Pennsylvania averaged 30% from 2015 to 2017.
“But Pennsylvania can and must do better,” Ziegenfus wrote. “Consider the much more successful test levels in Massachusetts (47.8%), Connecticut (32.7%) and Maryland (29.9%). Even in Philadelphia, a well-known place of lead problems, only 30% of children have been tested. On the other hand, the percentage of (confirmed high blood lead levels) in Philadelphia is 60% lower than in Reading. “
Ziegenfus wrote that the lower percentage of confirmed elevated blood lead levels in Philadelphia is likely due to the work of the Philadelphia Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Advisory Group and actions by the city government to fund studies and enforce housing laws.
“No similar effort has yet taken place in Reading,” wrote the researcher. “One condition that likely inhibits improved testing in Reading is that 12 of 27 areas, nine of which have among the highest percentages of confirmed elevated, are designated as medically underserved areas. The confirmed high average percentage in these 12 areas is 13%. “
Earlier in May, the Reading Community Development Department received confirmation from the State Department of Health that Reading would receive a lead risk reduction grant. Details on the grant were not available. Community development was to know the first steps of starting a program at a first meeting on May 18.
Ziegenfus called a glaring omission in the data that race and ethnicity are poorly collected, lacking specificity. In Reading, 6,391 (91%) of those tested were classified as an unknown race. It’s a problem at the collection point, not by the health ministry, he said.
To conduct the study, Ziegenfus obtained geocoded test data from the Department of Health through its Institutional Research Council. He also mapped the data on the risks of high lead levels in children: rental housing, old housing stock, poverty and race.
Ziegenfus is currently examining five years of data at levels lower than census tracts. He hopes to publish his research later this year.
He said the analysis could help public officials prioritize prevention efforts.
Instead of helping children after being exposed and relying on parents to confront owners, experts say it’s better to work to avoid exposure.
Acknowledging that the city is on a tight budget, Ziegenfus said his research could help determine where lead mitigation could have the greatest impact.
Last year, a coalition of organizations unsuccessfully applied for $ 3.4 million in grants from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development for lead mitigation. The coalition dissolved when it lost the grant.
the Reading eagle asked Louise Souders, a public health expert who has been involved in multiple efforts to secure funding to tackle lead in the city, to review the Ziegenfus study.
“My simple review of the article without confirming the statistical analyzes of the data, led me to the conclusion that this is really a beautiful epidemiological research from a somewhat different point of view,” Souders said. , a biologist trained in public. health as a graduate of the Bloomberg Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health. “He has done a wonderful job of elucidating the incidence of lead poisoning in very discrete socio-economic sub-populations by geographic location.”
Souders said Ziegenfus’ maps are “brilliant, showing where these associated underlying disease causes lie, such as areas where families live below the poverty line, pockets of children under the age of 6 with public health insurance coverage, the percentage of female-headed households below the poverty line with less than a high school diploma, and, in particular, the location of rental properties. “
Souders said she sees the study as an important part of epidemiological research.
“This analysis is based on data available from the PA Ministry of Health over the years 2013-2017,” she said. “It takes two years for PA DOH to gather its statistics, so researchers are always looking for ‘old’ data.”
It won’t go away
Ziegenfus said the lack of current data (after 2019) is not significant because the underlying causes of the dilemma remain relatively constant.
Souders agreed and wondered if the COVID-19 pandemic could worsen the incidence of lead poisoning because children were essentially confined to a home, with the unavailability of paid child care and public education on site.
Souders said she sees three of Ziegenfus’ maps as particularly important for bringing about change: areas below the poverty line, the percentage of housing occupied by tenants, and health insurance for these children (via Medicaid).
Medicaid requires children to be tested for lead until they are 6 years old, when they drop the blood lead tracking radar.
Ziegenfus and Souders agreed that there was more research to be done in addition to stepping up efforts to tackle lead.
“I hope Dr Ziegenfus analyzes this impact of the pandemic,” she wrote. “I would look to see if the incidence is increasing or decreasing, depending on the safety of parents leaving the home to have their children tested, as well as any increase in actual lead levels in their blood following prolonged exposure.”
Lead paint is the main source of high blood lead levels in Reading in particular, but it can also be found in old pipes and in factory exhaust, Ziegenfus and Souders noted.
On Tuesday, elected officials, law enforcement officials, early childhood experts and more will hold a virtual press conference to discuss the impact of lead exposure on children in Berks County and across the state – and what can be done about it.
The press conference is unrelated to Ziegenfus’ research.