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Getting the lead out

July 31, 2001

Heather Heilman

The eradication of lead from the environment has been widely touted as a major public health success. But in a study conducted by Felicia Rabito, a quarter of the children screened in Orleans Parish Public Health Clinics last year had elevated levels of lead in their blood. In some neighborhoods, half of the children had elevated levels. That doesn't sound like a public health success to Rabito, a clinical assistant professor of epidemiology at the public health school.

"Overall, the percentage of children in New Orleans with elevated blood levels is only a couple of points higher than the national average, so people think we don't have problem," Rabito said. "Well, we don't have a problem if you accept that a quarter of our low-income minority kids have lead poisoning. So it's okay to poison poor black kids?"

Lead has its most serious effect on the brain and nervous system of children 6 years old and under. It can cause learning disabilities, lowered IQ and behavior problems. It may be linked to violence and delinquency in adolescents. And the effects are permanent.

"Lead is a known neurotoxin with serious outcomes," Rabito said. "But the problem is totally preventable."

Before 1978, lead was added to gasoline and paint. Lead that was in paint still lingers in the environment, and children who live in deteriorating old housing in the inner city are ingesting peeling paint that's been ground into dust.

"Parents know not to let their child eat paint chips," Rabito explained. "But if you live in a home that's deteriorating, the paint falls off and gets ground up. So it's in the dust. Little children crawl on the ground, they play with toys, they drop a piece of candy then pick it up and put it in their mouths. That's how they end up ingesting lead."

Most of the old houses in New Orleans are made of wood, and are therefore painted on the outside as well as in the interior. When old houses are renovated, and old paint is sanded off to make room for a fresh new layer, lead exposure can shoot up for residents and neighbors. Yet they usually are unaware of the problem unless a cat or dog convulses and dies mysteriously and a vet posthumously diagnoses lead poisoning.

The vet may suggest that parents then have their children tested. If their levels are dangerously elevated, they will have to undergo treatment to lower the amount of lead in their blood. Children who undergo this sort of acute lead exposure typically have higher levels than those who have chronic exposure over many years. But when the lead disappears from the environment, it disappears from their bodies as well.

For more than a year and a half, activists have been working to get a city ordinance passed that would make the dry sanding of homes illegal. There are ways to remove old paint that allow the old paint to be contained and are therefore safer than dry sanding. There is also a method that encapsulates the old paint, sealing it while creating a smooth surface that can be painted over.

In April, Rabito was invited to address the New Orleans City Council about the lead problem. Rabito told the council about the results of her research, and advised that whats now needed is action, not more studies. While she supports a ban on dry sanding, she points out it would do little to help children living in deteriorating housing on run-down blocks of the inner city.

"The high-risk age for lead poisoning is between 1 and 2 years old, because that's the age where kids want to put everything in their mouths. But in New Orleans, we're seeing kids whose levels stay elevated when they're 3, 4, 5 and 6. That's because nothing is happening, there's no intervention at all," Rabito said. "If we can clean up lead for all the other children, let's not leave this one segment behind."

She believes the city government needs to make the cleanup of blighted housing a bigger priority and go after any and all grant money that might be available to do it. Her message seemed to make an impact on the council. "Some of the council members are from the neighborhoods where this is a problem," she said. "And they're concerned about kids."

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000 website@tulane.edu