HCN News & Notes

Lead Poisoning A Growing Concern Amid Pandemic

SPRINGFIELD — Children are once again at the heart of the coronavirus pandemic.

Because children and families are spending more time in their homes during the pandemic, they are at increasing risk of lead exposure from paint and dust, the primary sources of lead poisoning.

Many families and property owners are also using this time to initiate Do-It-Yourself home projects or renovations, further increasing the risk of lead exposure.

According to the state’s Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program (CLPPP), a preliminary review of their blood lead data since March 16 suggests a significant decrease in lead screenings, by almost 75%, no surprise, they say, as health systems have been focused on pandemic response. However, despite this drop in screenings, the data review shows a sizable increase in rates of newly poisoned children with higher blood lead levels at BLL ≥10 μg/dL when compared to the same timeframe during the previous year.

“This is a very important new concern as it relates to the coronavirus,” said Dr. Hilary Branch, who sees young patients for lead poisoning at Baystate Children’s Hospital’s Pediatric Environmental Health Clinic. “Now, more than ever, children need to be screened because they are staying in their homes and playing near their homes more than usual. Previously children would be going to preschool, daycare, or a park, but now their home exposure is increased. Their lead levels can increase even more quickly to concerning levels,”

Lead exposure remains a significant health risk for children in Massachusetts. Any house built before 1978 may have lead paint and 71% of the housing in Massachusetts was built before 1978. Locally the highest numbers can be seen in Springfield, Holyoke, Westfield, West Springfield, and Chicopee. All children should be screened at least yearly until age 3 and in high risk communities up to age 4.

The state has the strictest screening rate and a lead law, which protects every child’s right to live in a lead-free home. The law requires the removal or covering of lead paint hazards — loose lead paint and lead paint on windows and other surfaces accessible to kids — in homes built before 1978 where any child under 6 lives. Owners are responsible with complying with the law, including owners of rental property, as well as owners living in their own single-family home.

“We need to protect our children from the serious health effects of lead,” said Branch. “At mild elevations it can decrease IQ, and cause behavior problems such as inattention and aggressive behavior. At higher levels it can affect the kidneys, growth, speech, and anemia, and at very high levels can cause seizures. Lead is more readily absorbed by children and their rapidly developing brains are also highly vulnerable to the effects of lead.”

While there has been the removal of lead by law from paint (banned in 1978), water pipes, gasoline and other sources posing risk to children and adults alike, hundreds of young children continue to be poisoned by lead each year in Massachusetts. Exposure is most often from lead-based paint and lead-contaminated dust found in older homes. However, there are additional risks to lead exposure such as imported toys and folk remedies, as well as other items such as clay pots, and some consumer products such as candies, make-up and jewelry.

“Most children do not have any symptoms or signs on exam even when their lead level is very high, making screening of paramount importance,” said Branch.