Lead poisoning rising in Chautauqua County

Due to an older housing stock in Chautauqua County, lead paint poisoning remains an issue for many youth — especially those spending added time in their homes due to COVID-19. This month, representatives from the Chautauqua County Health Department told the Dunkirk Common Council about the growing problem earlier this month.

“We have old windows, old doors, old paint on the front porches. You walk across that porch, you open those windows, you’re creating a friction on the impact surface that’s creating lead dust that’s tracked into the house and kids are crawling across the floor and then they’re putting their hands in their mouth,” said county Lead Program Coordinator Anna Powell. “Right now at the Health Department we have an elevated blood level program that after a kid has already been lead poisoned, we go in and do a housing inspection. In October of 2019 that level was actually 15 so this level hasn’t always been 5 mcg/dL (which is the state level of poisoning and investigation starts). We have gone from 2018, 2019 doing maybe 12 to 15 inspections a year. Now, last year we had 100 kids.”

Powell added that from just Oct. 1 to right now they already have 30 kids.

“With COVID kids are spending more time at home, they aren’t getting a break in a lead safe environment for eight hours,” Powell added. “I’m worried how that is going to impact that situation as well as many others.”

“We know that even at low levels, childhood lead poisoning can cause a number of issues for young children when it happens in early childhood,” Lisa Schmidtfrerick, health and communities consultant stated. “Children’s brains develop at a very rapid pace and lead acts kind of like a block to some of that development.”

Some of the impact that lead can have on kids includes loss of IQ points, problems with aggression, memory problems, impulse control problems, poor motor skills and concentration difficulties. According to Schmidtfrerick a lot of these are immediately recognizable when children are poisoned, especially in the early developmental stage. Yet some of these problems may not become apparent until they hit school and for some of these issues it’s not until later years when more complex problem solving comes along.

“At 5, kids are 30% more likely to fail their third grade math and reading tests. They’re more likely to be non-proficient in basic math, reading and science skills,” Schmidtfrerick added. “As far as prevalence in our community we have close to 100 children testing over a five every year in Chautauqua County, many of those children are in Jamestown, but about 12% of those cases are in Dunkirk.”

According to the health department kids should be tested twice before age 3. Right now however they’re estimating that a quarter to one-third of kids are not being tested.

“We have every reason to suspect that kids not being tested are some of our highest risk kids,” Schmidtfrerick noted. “They’re families that are moving frequently; they’re not maintaining regular contact with their pediatricians.”

The department is looking at revamping their primary prevention program through New York state. Prior to this year, prevention has always been focused in Jamestown, they are putting in the paperwork with the state to change the work plan to include the entire county, This means letters are sent to every family with a newborn stating that if they’re house is older than 1978 and there’s kids under the age of 6 in the home the department can come in and do an inspection for free. Free lead renovation, repair and paint classes that usually cost around $200 for landlords and tenants will also be offered which will train individuals in safe practices.

A HUD grant that the department recently received will offer window replacement at $12,000 per unit to low income qualifying families.

“We’re really trying our best to pair some housing and health issues together,” Powell stated. “This past summer we worked at applying for HUD grants and were awarded that grant.”

That money will be available for allotment soon. “Right now we are using children as lead detectors in the county and that’s not fair,” Schmidtfrerick added. “One child is one child too many.”


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