Child lead poisoning cases in Maryland drop to lowest levels on record

Childhood lead poisoning in Maryland decreased last year to the lowest level since 1994, when the state began tracking cases, but health advocates said that more work needs to be done to prevent the serious and sometimes debilitating condition.

Fewer than 0.3 percent of the state’s children tested in 2016 had an elevated blood lead level that was 10 micrograms per deciliter or higher, the amount considered dangerous under state law, according to a report released Wednesday by the Maryland Department of the Environment.

The number of such child lead poisoning cases has dropped more than 98 percent since 1993, plummeting to 355 in 2016 from 14,546.

The improvements come as the state has used new tactics and funding to tackle the problem. It now tests all children at ages 1 and 2. Earlier this year, the state received $7.2 million in federal funding to tackle lead and asthma as environmental conditions in housing.

“We have the building blocks in place to deal with the lead paint issue,” said Horacio Tablada, deputy secretary of the Maryland Department of the Environment, which coordinates state efforts to eliminate childhood lead poisoning.

Tablada said old housing remains a persistent source of children’s exposure to lead. He also noted that for the first time the lead surveillance report tracked other potential sources of lead exposure and found that many young children with elevated blood lead levels may have been exposed to lead from sources other than deteriorated lead-based paint.

Such sources include toys, cosmetics and even spices purchased outside the United States.

In the meantime, advocates say that children continue to be exposed to lead, which even in tiny amounts can hurt development of the brain.

“We have accomplished a lot over the last two decades, but we still have kids who are poisoned for life,” said state Del. Sandy Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat.

Rosenberg and other child health advocates said part of the problem is the way state law defines elevated lead levels, which could delay when a child gets care or other interventions. State law defines elevated lead levels as 10 micrograms per deciliter or more.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines it as 5 to 9 micrograms per deciliter. The state survey found such cases dipped slightly to 1,729 in 2016 from 1,789 a year earlier.

In Baltimore, where the lead problem is particularly pronounced because of large swaths of old housing stock, 1 percent of children tested positive for lead poisoning last year, also the lowest level since data has been collected.

Baltimore Health Commissioner Dr. Leana Wen said the progress made in reducing the numbers is good, but too many children still are exposed. New technology the city acquired will allow the department to start testing city children for lead at community health affairs and other public events. The city also began using the CDC lead level guidelines, rather than the state’s, to decide when it would implement intervention measures.

“Ideally the child doesn’t even get exposed in the first place,” Wen said. “We need to make sure it doesn’t even happen at all.”

The Green & Healthy Homes Initiative, a nonprofit focused on eradicating childhood lead poisoning by creating healthy homes, supports changing the state’s definition of elevated lead levels. It also wants more attention paid to lead levels at homes owned by the occupants. Much of the lead abatement laws now focus on rentals.

“It only takes the equivalent of three granules of sugar to poison a child from lead,” said Ruth Ann Norton, the initiative’s president and CEO. “We have to do more.”

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