Health experts contest lead report

Published 10:55 pm Thursday, January 28, 2016

Local and state healthcare officials are disputing claims made in an article published on the website that said 36.8 percent of children in Dallas County tested positive for lead poisoning, alleging the county had the third highest rate in the nation of children testing positive for lead.

The Vox article uses 2014 numbers from the Center for Disease Control that showed seven of 19 children tested had blood lead levels between 5 and 9 micrograms per deciliter.

The CDC classifies lead poisoning as anything over 5 micrograms, although no level is considered safe. Census information from 2014 shows slightly more than 10,500 people under the age of 18 living in Dallas County.

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National attention has turned to lead poisoning due to recent developments in Flint, Michigan, where about 4 percent of Flint children have tested positive for lead poisoning, with the alleged culprit being Flint’s water supply.

Local and state healthcare officials argue the Dallas County numbers do not accurately reflect the threat of lead poisoning here.

Dr. Erica Liebelt, a medical consultant for the Alabama State Health Department Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program, held a press conference Wednesday at Children’s of Alabama in Birmingham to explain various causes of lead poisoning and dispel rumors that have spread since the Vox story published.

“There are thousands of children that are being screened whose data is not being submitted to the CDC website. I know that,” Liebelt said.

Salvador Gray, director of the indoor, lead and air branch of the Alabama Department of Public Health, said that many more children in Dallas County and statewide are screened for lead poisoning, but the numbers are not required to be reported to the CDC if they are lower than 10 micrograms per deciliter.

In 2014, 537 children in Alabama had lead poisoning at or above 10 micrograms per deciliter, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health.

Gray said there has actually been a decrease in the number of cases of lead poisoning reported in Selma and Dallas County.

“It’s almost to the point where it’s nonexistent in Dallas County,” Gray said. “That doesn’t mean that there’s no lead hazard, but we’re not getting any reports.”

While acidic water traveling through corroding lead pipes is to blame in Flint, Gray said the main cause of lead poisoning in Dallas County is lead-based paint. Lead-based paint was banned in 1978, but many of the historic houses in Selma still contain it.

When the paint begins to chip and peel, it falls on the floor and becomes hazardous for young children.

Gray said that in newer homes, some vinyl mini-blinds imported from other countries have also been shown to contain lead.

“Purchase (blinds) that are made in the United States,” Gray said. “It should be stamped lead-free.”

David Hamm, general manager of Dallas County Water and Sewer, said the water quality in Dallas County has never been dangerous, and citizens should not worry about lead poisoning from water.

“We have to do lead and copper testing every three years, and we have not had a violation with that ever,” Hamm said.

In addition to precautions that can be taken with children around lead-based paint and vinyl mini-blinds, Liebelt also encouraged parents to have their children screened for lead poisoning before they notice a problem.

The CDC recommends lead level tests for all children at 12 and 24 months.

“If we can detect low levels of lead exposure early, then we can prevent the dangerous high lead levels that can really cause damage, and we can get it done earlier rather than later through proper screening and proper environmental remediation,” Liebelt said.

Liebelt reiterated no amount of lead is healthy for children or adults.

“It is imperative that the medical clinicians work with our public health officials, our public health team, identify the sources of lead poisoning, to educate families, day care workers and school nurses,” Liebelt said.

About Justin Fedich

Staff writer for The Selma Times-Journal.

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