‘Perfect Storm’ Heightens Risk For Childhood Lead Poisoning In Region
PITTSTON — Area residents could be at higher risk of lead poisoning than the rest of the state and nation, according to testimony at a hearing Monday in Pittston.
“Both poverty levels and older housing in Wilkes-Barre has created a perfect storm for childhood lead poisoning,” city health director Henry Radulski testified before the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee.
State Sen. John Yudichak, minority chair of the committee, hosted the hearing on lead exposure and mitigation as a new task force works to learn more about those risks to Pennsylvanians and to find ways to mitigate them.
Yudichak, D-14, Plymouth Twp., introduced a resolution to create the task force earlier this year, and the resolution passed in June. He first presented the resolution two years earlier in the wake of the widely publicized drinking water crisis in Flint, Michigan.
Lisa Daniels, acting deputy secretary for the Department of Environmental Protection’s Office of Water Programs, testified that exposure to lead is associated with serious adverse health effects to the brain and nervous system, especially in young children.
Infants and children exposed to lead may experience delays in physical and mental development, and may show deficits in attention span and learning disabilities. In adults, lead exposure can cause kidney problems and high blood pressure, Daniels said.
Daniels said lead enters drinking water mainly from corrosion of water pipes containing lead, faucets and fixtures with leaded brass, and pipes with lead solder. Lead was widely used in plumbing materials through the 1950s, and its use continued until 1986, when Congress amended the Safe Drinking Water Act, prohibiting the use of pipes and solder that are not “lead free.”
Older homes, more risk
Dr. Loren Robinson, deputy secretary of health promotion and risk reduction for the state Department of Health, testified that as homes get older and renovation such as replacing windows and scraping and repainting porches is done, lead-based paint dust can be spread to floors, yards or windowsills, and children can be exposed.
Daniels testified that Pennsylvania’s housing stock is “some of the oldest in the country” with about 40 percent of it built before 1950 and likely to contain lead paint and leaded plumbing materials.
Radulski testified the city appears to be at even greater risk, with 64 percent of the city’s 19,058 housing units built before 1978.
Additionally, nearly one-third of city residents live below poverty level — nearly twice the statewide percentage — and are less likely to be able to afford tests to detect lead levels or safely remove lead sources from the home, Radulski said.
Robinson said a home inspection and risk assessment could cost around $800, and making a single-family home lead-safe could cost from a few thousand dollars up to $25,000.
She recommended parents have their children tested for lead exposure around age 1 and again before age 2. Tests before age 2 are covered by all health insurance plans, and some plans cover it after age 2.
Dr. Aimee Johnson, a pediatrician with Pediatric Associates of Kingston and a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, testified that only 28 percent of children under 23 months were tested for blood lead levels in 2015.
Johnson advocated for a universal screening mandate in Pennsylvania. Noting that removal of lead from a child’s system can take months to years, she said damage caused by lead exposure is permanent and irreversible.
David Kaufman, vice president of engineering for Pennsylvania American Water, testified the company replaces about 1 percent of its water mains every year. He said recent research shows that attaching a new line from the main to the customer’s lateral without also replacing the customer’s lateral line “potentially elevates the risk of lead exposure.”
Kaufman said the company has an application before the Public Utility Commission to charge customers $1.20 annually to cover the cost of replacing customer-owned water lines between the curb and the customer’s home whenever water mains are replaced.
The charge would also cover the cost of replacing a customer’s service pipes upon request — even if no main replacement is planned — if the company agrees that the customer-owned service pipe contains lead.
Sen. Lisa Baker, who is on the task force as chair of the Health and Human Services Committee, said medical testimony about the effects of lead on children made a lasting impression on her and put the issue into perspective.
Baker, R-20, Lehman Twp., noted that the state offers low-interest loans for septic system replacement and would like to see officials consider a similar loan program for lead water pipe replacement and lead paint abatement.
Yudichak agreed that lead abatement measures are cost prohibitive, and a major challenge will be developing a program with dedicated funding. He said screenings are more affordable and supported Johnson’s call for universal lead screenings.
“It’s about affordable, effective solutions to dealing with what is undeniably a serious issue, particularly in communities that have an aging housing stock,” Yudichak said.
Committee Chairman Gene Yaw said the biggest takeaway from the hearing for him was education, “not only education of elected officials, but education of the general public.”
“I think just getting the message out to people and encouraging people to take some action on their own is a key that came out of this,” Yaw said.
Contact the writer:
Wilkes-barre addressing lead risk
Wilkes-Barre Health Director Henry Radulski testified to the following on Monday before the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee:
n Prior to 17 months ago, the city health department would be notified through an electronic reporting system when a lab detected a high level of lead in a child’s blood test. The city would send a nurse to assess the home of the child and make recommendations to the tenants or landlord, but there was no ordinance to support enforcement or funding for mitigation.
n In May 2016, the health department assumed responsibility for inspecting all rental units, and inspectors were trained in recognizing factors that could lead to lead poisoning. Inspections increased from about 300 to more than 2,000 annually.
n The city was awarded a two-year federal Lead Hazard Control Grant through the state Department of Health in September. The grant provides funding for abatement of lead hazards in households where a child under age 6 has an elevated level of lead in his or her blood.
n The city hired a lead paint risk assessor who, with necessary equipment, can do an on-site analysis of paint in homes.
For more information on preventing lead exposure and guidance on what to do if you think or know your home has lead in the paint or pipes or if you or your child has elevated blood lead levels, call the state Department of Health’s Lead Information Line at 1-800-440-LEAD or visit www.health.pa.gov.