By Allison Benz
In January 2016, the Michigan governor declared a state of emergency in Flint, Michigan because toxic levels of lead were discovered in tap water. The water crisis made headlines in national news and revealed to the public the harmful effects of lead in children’s growth and development. The Flint crisis shined a spotlight on the ongoing threat of lead to the public. But there were lead crises elsewhere, one right here in Lancaster, PA. In June 2016, Lancaster County and City received a 1.33 million dollar grant from the federal government to reduce the risk of lead poisoning in houses due to the widespread use of lead-based paint before 1978. The prevalence of lead poisoning in children still persists in Lancaster, so it is important to understand what lead poisoning is, how it disrupts our health, and what resources are available to Lancaster residents.
What is lead and how does it disrupt the body?
Lead is a soft, malleable heavy metal with a low melting point. It was prized for its versatility and used in many products—especially in paint to increase its durability and moisture-wicking properties. However, it is a toxic element that can cause irreversible damage to blood cells, nerve cells, kidneys, and the brain. There is even evidence that the ancient Romans were aware of the dangers of lead, yet the use of lead continued over the centuries. Nowadays, doctors know for certain that prolonged lead exposure can cause serious, adverse mental, physical, and behavioral symptoms. It was not until 1978 that lead-based paint was banned by the federal government, forcing paint companies to develop safer, nontoxic alternatives.
In 2018, CDC estimates indicate that just under 10,000 kids in Pennsylvania had elevated lead levels in their blood, although limitations in the data collection mean there are likely more cases than reported in any given year. Scientists have also found that children’s bodies easily absorb toxic lead because it mimics calcium, an essential mineral for the growth and development of children. A blog post in Science in the News, a website developed by graduate students at Harvard University, describes lead in this process as “hijack[ing] calciums’ roles in the brain.” Once absorbed, lead wreaks havoc on the child’s brain and nervous system, which can lead to stunted growth and development, hearing loss, communication problems, behavioral issues, and learning delays.
Because lead is so detrimental to public health, the federal government passed two laws, the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 and the Residential Lead-Based Paint Hazard Reduction Act of 1992. The laws gave power to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate lead and other toxic substances as well as require testing and reporting for lead in older houses. They also empowered the EPA to create standards and certify businesses through their lead abatement program.
Lead in Lancaster
In 2017, Lancaster County reported 13.4% prevalence of lead poisoning, a high number compared to the 3.29% average for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. In Lancaster County, cases of lead poisoning in children occur because they ingest dust and peeling or chipping paint in older homes (pre-1978一when the use of lead-based paint was finally outlawed). According to a local study, researchers found a wide knowledge gap between Lancaster residents: while some were aware of the lead crisis in great detail, others knew very little. In 2017, only 9.89% of children younger than six years in Lancaster received a blood lead test, but experts estimate the rate of lead poisoning is higher than reported.
Nonetheless, children can safely live in a home with lead paint on the walls if they are covered over with non-lead paint and maintained diligently to prevent cracking or peeling paint. Lead abatement methods include repainting of walls and replacement or repair of doors, windows, and floors. But because lead is so toxic, an EPA-certified specialist must be called in to perform lead abatement.
Over the past several years, Lancaster has received a variety of government assistance to perform lead abatement. A specialist will conduct a risk assessment to detect lead hazards, and EPA-licensed contractors will be called in to reduce or eliminate risks. To see if assistance from the City is a good option for you, click on City of Lancaster Lead Hazard Control Program to learn more, and continue to keep an eye out for new Lancaster initiatives in preventing exposure to lead and raising awareness about this issue.
The resources on this site should not replace professional medical care. Readers should consult their medical providers to discuss their healthcare needs.