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Health Care Advocates Push For Mandatory Lead-Level Tests In PA

Joel Penner

Allegheny County recently tested 15 percent of children under the age of eight for lead exposure and found more than 7 percent had higher than recommended levels in their blood. In response, Dr. Karen Hacker, director of the Allegheny County Health Department, called for legislation mandating the testing of all children in the state.

Ashley Murray, multimedia editor for the Pittsburgh City Paper, talked to several people about the extent of the problem in the area.

Hacker told Murray the real issue is that there isn’t a baseline where officials to compare test results.

“She’s pushing for the mandatory testing across Pennsylvania to actually get a handle on how bad the problem would be, if it is in fact bad,” Murray said.

Murray spoke to a woman in Erie, whose 9-month-old daughter tested positive for lead exposure. They determined that opening and closing windows coated with lead paint created dust that got into her daughter’s bloodstream.

“Those kinds of situations are the reason why Dr. Karen Hacker and some state legislators here in Pennsylvania are pushing for mandatory testing across the state,” Murray said.

A.J. Koury of Homewood Children’s Village has been working to gauge the size problem in his community.

“The effects of lead are invisible in a large way because you can’t tell from someone just looking at them if they are being exposed to higher levels of lead,” Koury said.

Things like behavioral problems in the classroom, irritability, loss of appetite and fatigue can indicate a child has been exposed to lead.

“For instance, in Homewood we know our children have some of the lowest standardized test scores in the city,” Koury said. “It stands to reason that it’s possible that our children might be exposed to more lead.”

He said lead exposure would compound other problems children in Homewood are dealing with like poverty and homelessness.

“There are things that they are contending with outside of that 8:30 in the morning to 4:00 in the afternoon that are huge, that adults would have trouble contending with,” Koury said.

Murray spoke to a pediatrician at Allegheny General Hospital who said he automatically tests patients at 9 months, and he hasn’t seen high levels of lead among children in Pittsburgh.

While the pediatrician said tests don’t cost very much, State Rep. Matt Baker cited the Affordable Care Act and said he was concerned with putting more mandates on health care providers.

Baker chairs the health committee in the state house, which has yet to hold hearings concerning legislation that would require testing.

There are other bills in the house that seek to improve water testing and require landlords to test the paint in their houses. But Murray said dealing with the problem once it’s identified is the difficult part.

“That’s the point where this gets tricky and expensive,” Murray said. “There’s nothing that covers where the money would come from once these expensive lead abatement plans are realized by people who are doing the testing.”

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