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Pittsburgh's history of lead in our water, paint, and soil continues to have enormous repercussions for the area's public health. Hidden Poison is a series on lead problems and solutions, reported by public media partners 90.5 WESA News, Allegheny Front, PublicSource, and Keystone Crossroads. Read more at our website: hiddenpoison.org.

County Council To Vote Wednesday On Proposed Lead Testing Mandate For Kids

Liz Reid
90.5 WESA
UPMC phlebotomist Candice Graham takes a blood sample from 10-month-old Eleanor Comeau while her mother, Amanda Comeau, holds her on January 27, 2017.

Allegheny County Council is expected to vote Wednesday evening on a proposed mandate for blood lead testing for all children between nine and twelve months of age, and again at age 2.

The proposal comes from the Allegheny County Health Department, about a year after it was revealed that some Pittsburgh residents had elevated levels of lead in their tap water.

But Health Department Director Karen Hacker said water is not the primary source of lead poisoning in small children.

“We know in Allegheny County that 80 percent of our homes were built before lead was taken out of paint … which is why we feel strongly about having universal testing here,” Hacker said.

She said testing is routine around the ages of 1 and 2 years old because children are crawling around on the ground and exploring their environments with their mouths. Lead paint can turn into lead dust in areas of high friction, such as drawers and windows, and settle on the floor and other horizontal surfaces.

Ingesting lead can lead to developmental delays over time, but Hacker said there is typically no way for parents to know their child is in danger of lead poisoning without a blood test.  

“You generally don’t see them have any other kind of symptoms, so you honestly would not know that they had high lead levels,” Hacker said.

The county already collects data from pediatricians and laboratories that do blood lead testing. If a child’s lead level is above 10 micrograms per liter, the county will send an inspector out to the home to try to pinpoint the source of the lead poisoning.

“That’s a comprehensive and intensive review of the property to see where the lead hazards are, to identify the child’s behavior to see if possibly they’re gnawing on a windowsill or furniture that’s painted,” said Dave Namey, manager for the department’s housing and community environment program. “The point is to try to figure out how this child ingested lead.”

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald has indicated his support of the measure, noting that, like most vaccine mandates, there are loopholes for people opposed to it for religious or moral reasons.

“It’s a mandate, but it’s a mandate with exceptions,” Fitzgerald said. “If you have a religious exemption and you don’t want to participate, you don’t have to, but it’s really something to encourage people.”

If passed by Council, the mandate would go into effect on Jan. 1, 2018.

Liz Reid began working at WESA in 2013 as a general assignment reporter and weekend host. Since then, she’s worked as the Morning Edition producer, health & science reporter and as an editor.
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