Slight Uptick In Cuyahoga County's Lead Poisoned Children, Data Shows

[photo: Sarah Jane Tribble/ ideastream]
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by Sarah Jane Tribble

The latest state testing data shows a very slight increase in the number of Cuyahoga County children with lead poisoning.

In 2014, 10.3 percent of children reported 5 micrograms per deciliter or more of lead in their blood, according to new data sheets posted on the Cuyahoga County Board of Health web site last week. The data shows that 2,278 children, or 84 more than in 2013, reported the eleveated blood lead levels. In each year, about 22,000 children were tested. 

“It's just curious because I've never seen it before,” says John Sobolewski, the head of Cuyahoga County's lead program. “It's not dramatic but still, going up rather than down for an entire county when that many children are screened.”

And while recent data from 2015 will not be available until later this year, Sobolewski says the numbers appear to be going in the wrong direction.  

For more than a decade, the data has shown a relatively steady decrease in the percentage of children testing positive for 5 micrograms per deciliter of lead in their blood. In 2004, 26.1 percent or children, or 7,989, tested positive for the elevated blood lead levels in Cuyahoga County. In 2013, 9.8 percent, or 2,194, of the county's children tested positive for elevated blood lead levels.

Sobolewski says until now, the trend has been fairly steady: The number and percentage of children testing positive declined even as the overall number of children tested remained relatively stable.

Each year, the majority of poisoned children come from the city of Cleveland. Of the 2,278 children poisoned in 2014, 1,744 were from Cleveland. More than 14 percent of the children tested in Cleveland report 5 micrograms per deciliter or more of lead in their blood—one of the highest levels in the nation.

“There’s no safe level,” Sobolewski says, adding later, “Certainly it does give you some indication of the total burden on a community.”

To be sure, Sobolewski and others warned that the increase is slight and it would be difficult to draw larger trend conclusions.

“We’re aware of the numbers, we keep track of the numbers, we want to continue to focus on housing and reduce exposure. Its surveillance data, it’s important,” Sobolewski says.

Even low levels of lead in blood have been shown to affect IQ, ability to pay attention and academic achievement, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The level of 5 micrograms per deciliter or higher is high enough, health experts agree, to mentally stunt the children and cause behavior problems like aggression and hyperactivity disorder.

“The slight uptick is maybe within what we call experimental error, that is it's fairly small,” Dr. Dorr Dearborn, a researcher at Cleveland's Case Western Reserve University. “On the other hand, it shows that it's no longer decreasing. It's steady.”

Dearborn says the data underlines all the more that “we've got to get this straightened out.”

“We've got to get back on track of inspecting the homes for these children and providing public health measures to help them,” Dearborn says.

Dearborn dug into the data a bit and found that the number of children who required urgent medical care when their blood levels were above 45 micrograms per deciliter had also risen slightly.

“Those numbers have been decreasing steadily since 2004 but since 2012 they have been slighting increasing,” Dearborn says. 

A total of 10 children in the county needed hospitalization in 2014 up from 6 in 2012. Dearborn says he can’t say exactly what’s causing the increase, but it suggests that a lack of home inspections that could help educate families and a lack of funds to fix houses is harming children.

Recently, lead in the water has garnered national attention in Flint, Mich., and Sebring, Ohio. But In Northeast Ohio, the chipping paint in old housing stock has poisoned children for decades. 

For the past year the city has been under fire for failing to fix houses and prevent poisoning. Acting Health Director Natoya Walker Minor says they're trying to renew their efforts to fight lead.  

“At issue is lead has a long life span and it continues to poison,” Walker Minor says. “And every single day every one of us must tell our families and friends to be careful of lead if we live in a home built before 1978 because that home could be the source of poisoning and that's just the reality.”

Walker Minor says she's training six current staff to be lead investigators and requesting two additional positions to be funded in the next city budget. 

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