Local health department testing shows alarming spike in lead levels among area children

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From JUDITH ZACCARIA/Cowley CourierTraveler

(Editor’s Note: CourierTraveler Publisher David A. Seaton contributed to this story. Reporting for this story was underwritten by a children’s health grant from the Kansas Newspaper Foundation made possible through the Legacy Regional Community Foundation for the use of all media outlets.)

Concerned groups who put together troubling statistics on the state of children’s health in Cowley County included the threat of lead poisoning, based on the fact that 73.3% of the houses here were built before 1979, when lead paint was banned.

That compares to 59.3% in the rest of the state, according to the Data Walk figures. Lead also is found in solder used with copper water pipes in older homes, and in some aging public water lines.

And now, worry about lead poisoning is mounting among health officials as more tests come in showing elevated levels among local children.

The City-Cowley County Health Department provided information from 2019 through 2023, showing a big jump in the percentage of children testing at 5 or higher micrograms per deciliter, from 2019 to 2020. With some fluctuation, the percentages have remained high, with a huge spike in kids’ showing lead levels at 10 or above in 2023.

Statewide figures available on the Kansas Department of Health and Environment website are only current as of 2019, and warn that the small numbers of test being done leave “much unknown about the true burden of lead poisoning in the state.”

The most common source of lead exposure, the agency says, is paint in older housing.

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But health department director Tom Langer said the local trend with current figures is troubling. Perhaps even more alarming are readings from two kids, one in 2022 at 45, and one in 2023 at 61.

“Those numbers tell us we’ve got a serious problem out there,” Langer said. “And we have to address it. … This is a grassroots problem, and we all have to step up year after year to solve it. Top down won’t solve it.”

The health department is looking forward to a grant to help go at the problem, although Langer said it is too early to make the details public.

Paint and pipes

Though it was long thought to be a beneficial element, lead is a serious danger, especially to young, developing children between birth and five years of age. Depending on the level of exposure, it can cause irritability, delayed growth, even death.

Langer described the potential layers of lead in an old house. Lead in the plaster walls. Lead in the paint on those walls. Lead in the wallpaper paste. Lead in the finish on the floors.

Every time anyone pounded a nail into the wall to hang a picture or a mirror, lead dust could have sifted out into the air where kids could inhale it or to the floor where they could ingest it.

Ironically, many nicer homes in Cowley County and other places actually had more lead in them because the more affluent people could buy their paint and pay for it up front, Langer said.

The use of lead paint in homes was banned in 1978. But what about the paint already on the walls? How to get rid of it?

Cowley County Administrator Lucas Goff, showing some of the work being done to remodel the courthouse, said the problems with lead and asbestos — both of which were widely used in public and private buildings — come when you move them.

He pointed out places on the ceiling where the asbestos, that had been sprayed with lead for texture, had been scraped away, then the area was covered with a sealant in case there were any specks of either asbestos or lead paint still there.

Cities here and across the country are doing an inventory of public and private water pipes under an Environmental Protection Agency order to determinate where lead pipes are so they can eventually be removed. Property owners are being asked to fill out surveys about about their pipes. The inventory is due by Oct. 16 this year, and the EPA has proposed a rule calling for most all lead pipes across the country to be removed within 10 years.

The City of Winfield website has pictures of pipes to help people understand what they are seeing. The city is uncertain just how much lead piping remains in its water distribution system, but City Manager Taggart Wall estimates less than 1%.

Fixing or removing lead pipes is challenging because of costs. Cowley First Administrator Jessica Falk, who is leading the Cowley Acts group working with housing — an outgrowth of the DataWalk project — said the county has a grant that provides $10,000 per person that people can use to repair their homes.

But there are only 25 grants available, a fraction compared to the homes that potentially have problems. Falk said they are waiting for more funds to distribute. People can also get financial help if their city has a Neighborhood Revitalization Program that covers the area where they live.

The harm

Adults can get lead poisoning if they do certain kinds of work including sandblasting old paint or manufacturing lead-acid batteries. They can also be exposed to it through hobbies such as making stained glass, lead lighting or fishing lures or restoring old furniture, houses, cars or boats. Pregnant women exposed to lead can pass it on to their fetuses.

The effects of lead poisoning on adults is serious, requiring medication and sometimes hospitalization, but the effects on children from birth to six years, when they are intensely developing physically and mentally are most concerning.

Children can be exposed to lead through water, paint or the ground or by putting something with lead on it in their mouths.

As Langer described it, if lead is inhaled or ingested, it takes more than a month for a body to get rid of it. It settles in various body tissues, the worst being in the developing brain. There it creates blockages so messages can’t get across the synapses causing the brain not to function properly.

Keishawna Ratzloff, of Ark City, said lead exposure had caused major problems for her family, including losing a housing voucher because of it. She also said she was told lead could have caused a miscarriage, after discovering that her son tested positive for lead poisoning.

Another mother in Ark City, who did not want her name used, said her son tested positive for elevated lead levels — 8.3 micrograms per deciliter — in November at a routine check for children on Medicaid insurance.

The levels dropped three months later, after she stopped using city water to fill his bottles. They live in an older home, and she suspects water pipes. Her son is a year old.

“I mean, clearly I don’t know 100 percent what caused his levels to go so high, but I do know it’s a problem in children in Ark City.”

Exposure to lead does not immediately manifest itself, so people can go a long time before realizing their child is having a problem.

Determining whether a child is acting out is due to lead poisoning or some other condition isn’t easy, according to Felicia Mettling, health care coordinator for the Winfield school district.

Lead exposure at any age is problematic, but in developing children small amounts of lead can cause them to appear inattentive, hyperactive or irritable. If children are exposed to higher levels of lead, they may have problems learning and reading, delayed growth or hearing loss. Higher levels of exposure may even lead to death.

Mettling said the school district, with the cooperation of the health department, is planning to make a blood lead test one of the requirements for children entering school.

“The sooner we know there is a problem, the sooner we can work to correct it,” Mettling said. “We don’t want to have (children) come in with a problem that goes undetected for years.”

Treatment of lead poisoning begins with removing the lead from the environment. If lead in the body is high, medications can remove it, but damage to the child’s health may already be done before he receives care.

Probably the most important thing parents can do for their infants and babies is ask for a lead test to be done along with other tests given to them early on.

Children who attend Head Start, are part of Women, Infants and Children or are enrolled in Medicaid — all federal programs — have to undergo lead tests at 12 and 24 months.

Any babies brought to the Cowley County Health Department for early checkups must also have a lead test among the others usually given to infants and toddlers.

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