Lead poisoning is one of the few health problems that is 100 percent preventable, and yet each year, thousands of children in Pennsylvania are sickened by the toxic metal.
And no child is safe from the potential risk of lead exposure. Harmful levels of lead lurk in all 67 Pennsylvania counties — in old homes, crumbling schools, drinking water fed by aging service lines, and soil near former industrial sites, according to a recently released state report.
“There is essentially no safe harbor from lead contamination anywhere,” said Yvonne Llewellyn Hursh, counsel to the Joint State Government Commission, which published the report. “There is not one county that doesn’t have a school or a water system, or just plain old housing that was built during the era of lead.”
State Sen. Vincent Hughes (D., Phila.) organized a news conference Friday in front of a city health center in West Philadelphia to bring more attention to the report, published in late April. Hughes, who is drafting legislation based on the report’s findings and recommendations, called together about a dozen pediatricians and public health advocates to raise awareness about lead’s toxic legacy and gain support for measures to stem childhood lead poisoning not just in Philadelphia, but statewide.
The 423-page report, titled, “Lead Exposure Risks and Responses in Pennsylvania," offers a dozen recommendations aimed at eradicating what was described during the news conference as a statewide public health crisis that demands an immediate response.
The report’s findings mirrored those revealed by a five-part Inquirer series, “Toxic City,” which exposed how Philadelphia’s children, mostly poor and minority, aret exposed to hazardous levels of lead in their homes, backyards, and schools.
“Unfortunately, the lead issue that is prevalent not just in Philadelphia but across the entire state is severely undermining the potential of all of our kids,” said George Dalembert, a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “It is an insidious problem. It sneaks up on you, and it’s not until problems are arising that we sometimes can’t reverse that we realize that our kids have been poisoned by lead.
“In medicine, there are a lot of things that we are still figuring out. The dangers of lead, that’s not one of them,” said Dalembert, who was one of several pediatricians who joined lawmakers and public health officials at the news conference.
Research shows there is no safe level of lead exposure, especially for infants and young children. Lead poisoning can cause irreversible damage, including lower IQ and lifelong learning and behavioral problems.
Philadelphia, which ranks among the top large U.S. cities in risk for childhood lead poisoning, continues to struggle to eradicate the problem, especially in the poorest neighborhoods. In some pockets of the city, as many as one out of five children under age 6 have high lead levels, the Inquirer investigation found.
Exposure to lead-based paint is the primary cause of lead poisoning. And that makes Philadelphia particularly vulnerable. With a timeworn housing stock, 92 percent of homes were built before the country’s 1978 lead-paint ban. The School District’s buildings are also old and deteriorating.
The report’s recommendations range from requiring universal blood screenings for young children to the inspection and certification of all water outlets in schools used for drinking or preparing food.
Some recommendations have already been enacted in Philadelphia in the wake of The Inquirer’s investigation. For example, City Council passed a bill last month requiring physicians to conduct two blood lead screenings before children turn 2 years old.
Other recommendations include:
Require all rental properties in the state built before 1978 to be certified as lead-safe and those built before 1990 also to be certified as lead-safe for drinking water. Currently in Philadelphia, landlords are only required to certify their homes as lead-safe if they rent to families with children ages 6 and under.
Mandate that child-care facilities and those for medically vulnerable people be inspected to ensure they are lead-safe.
Establish a statewide rental housing registry so potential tenants could check to see if the home has been certified as lead-safe.
Establish a lead-abatement grant program to help property owners rid their homes of chipping and peeling paint.
Hughes, an advocate of increased state funds to remediate lead paint in old homes and schools, said the recommendations are being drafted into bills and he hopes to enact some of the measures during budget negotiations within the next few weeks.