Lead poisoning cases fell 19 percent in Baltimore last year, even as more children tested for exposure

The number of Baltimore children with lead poisoning fell 19 percent in 2017, even as more children were tested for exposure to the powerful neurotoxin.

Statewide, the number of Maryland children found to have elevated levels of lead in their blood held steady even as the number of children tested increased by 10 percent, according to a Maryland Department of the Environment report released Tuesday.

Maryland “is making great strides toward reducing and eliminating childhood lead poisoning,” said Robert R. Neall, secretary of the Maryland Department of Health, in a statement.

Despite the increase in testing, 76 percent of children across Maryland — including 72 percent of Baltimore children — were not tested for lead last year.

Ruth Ann Norton, CEO of the Green and Healthy Homes Initiative, called the report encouraging, but she said it shows there is still work to be done to eradicate lead poisoning. She noted that the number of lead-poisoned children with what is considered the “action” level in Maryland rose, and that poisoning continues to occur in the same Baltimore neighborhoods that have been dealing with its effects on children for decades.

“What this proves is we are in a winnable war to protect our children,” said Norton, whose organization is focused on improving housing conditions to improve child health. “This has to spur us to further action.”

Even tiny amounts of the heavy metal, found commonly in paint and dust in older homes, can damage the nervous systems of young children.

Maryland started requiring “universal” lead testing of 1- and 2-year-olds in 2016 in an effort to one day eliminate lead poisoning across the state. The testing allows early intervention and treatment for lead-poisoned children.

More than 143,000 Maryland children were tested for lead in 2017, up from just shy of 130,000 in the previous year.

According to the report, 49 percent of 1- and 2-year-olds across the state were tested last year, up five percentage points from the first year of the testing requirement.

There were 2,049 Maryland children reported to have at least 5 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood last year, down slightly from 2,084 in 2016. No level of lead exposure is considered safe, but at that level, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends further monitoring and case management.

2017 annual report for the state's lead poisoning prevention program »

Baltimore accounted for 789, or about 39 percent, of those 2017 cases. That’s down from 971 cases a year earlier.

Interim Baltimore Health Commissioner Mary Beth Haller called the decline “wonderful news,” a product of work to educate parents about possible sources of lead exposure and to encourage more doctors to perform lead testing during office visits. To reduce cases even further, she said, proactive testing is important and needs to happen more frequently because both symptoms and sources of lead exposure are often hard for parents to notice.

State officials attributed the statistics to the universal testing initiative and a state health department program promoting what it calls point of care testing, when children are tested and results are provided during the same office visit.

Haller said transportation barriers and inconvenient testing locations can discourage parents from having their children tested, but that enabling more pediatricians to perform the blood analysis in their offices could help reveal more cases of lead exposure.

“We’re trying to get that word out to providers that investing in this technology is the right thing to do for their patients,” Haller said.

Prince George’s County has the second-highest total of lead poisonings of any jurisdiction in the state last year, with 331 cases.

The state departments of health, environment and housing also are collaborating on efforts to target the sources of lead with home visits and lead abatement programs, Neall said. Often overlooked sources of lead exposure include cosmetics, spices and dust from traces of lead paint in old homes.

“Lead has no boundaries, but we are making real progress in protecting children from lead poisoning,” said Maryland Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles in a statement. “With universal testing, strong enforcement, and innovative partnerships among local, state, and federal agencies and the Green and Healthy Homes Initiative, we can eliminate this entirely preventable disease.”

Norton said the response to the latest statistics should prompt state leaders to lower the “action” level of 10 micrograms per deciliter of blood — when such exposure is found in Baltimore rental properties, landlords are required to investigate and address sources of contamination.

The number of Maryland children with that level of lead exposure reached 388 last year, up from 355 in 2016.

“We need to pay serious attention to where those kids are,” she said. “We need to address those hot spots and double down.”

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