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State considers mandating more lead inspections

February 26, 2019

HARTFORD — An effort to protect children by lowering the threshold of lead exposure that triggers state and local investigations met opposition from the Department of Public Health and municipal representatives Monday.

The General Assembly’s Public Health Committee has proposed legislation that would lower the level at which a local health director must investigate the cause of lead poisoning from twenty micrograms per deciliter of blood to five micrograms. The legislation would also allow families with a child who has this lower lead level to access state housing resources.

“If we move it down to 5 micrograms, we will hopefully catch a lot more of this,” said Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, who chairs the committee.

The change would put state law in line with the Centers for Disease Control, which lowered its blood lead “level of concern” from 10 micrograms to 5 micrograms per deciliter of blood in 2012.

New Haven uses a city ordinance to trigger local intervention at 5 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood. The city of Bridgeport intervenes at 10 micrograms per deciliter of blood.

New Haven and Bridgeport are the towns with the highest incidence of lead poisoning in children in Connecticut, followed by Waterbury, Hartford and Meriden.

The Department of Public Health testified Monday that it had “reservations” about the legislation, because it would require more resources, staff and equipment for local health departments and DPH.

“The implementation of the changes outlined in this proposed bill would result in an additional 1,200 comprehensive lead inspections and epidemiological investigations annually,” DPH wrote. “The four local health departments with the highest percentage of lead poisoned children would bear the responsibility of 900 (75 percent) of these inspections, increasing their annual caseload by 160-300 inspections/investigations.”

But Joelen Gates, an attorney at Connecticut Legal Services, said she believed this estimate is an exaggeration because New Haven and Bridgeport are already conducting investigations using lower lead levels. She called the current state law “the status quo of too little, too late.”

“We urge passage of this bill to bring us more in line with other New England states and with the medical background and history on this,” Gates said.

Over 2,150 children younger than six were diagnosed with lead poisoning in Connecticut in 2015, according to the most recent data available from the Department of Public Health. African American children were twice as likely to be poisoned as white kids; Hispanic kids were 1.6 times more likely than white ones. Lead poisoning can cause mental and physical deficiencies and be fatal.

Connecticut has a particular issue with lead poisoning because most of the housing stock was built before the 1980s, said Karen Siegel, public health policy fellow for Connecticut Voices for Children. Lead-based paints were banned for use in housing in 1978, according to the CDC.

The Connecticut Council on Municipalities called the bill a “large, unfunded mandate” on towns that would have to bear the cost of more lead inspections.

Bill Powers, a teacher and clinical psychologist from Windam, testified that preventing lead poisoning with earlier intervention is the most cost-effective way of dealing with the problem.

“For young brains, damage can be permanent and it is preventable,” he said.

emunson@hearstmediact.com; Twitter: @emiliemunson

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