US slashes aid for lead poisoning

Michael and Debbie Murray of Somerville had their home reinspected after their son was diagnosed with lead poisoning.

By David Abel  |  Globe Staff  |  December 5, 2011

Programs to fight lead poisoning in Massachusetts have been slashed during the past two years because of squeezed state and federal budgets, and now Congress is poised to eliminate the remaining federal aid - even as scientists last month concluded that the toxic metal can harm children at half the levels previously thought.
The new cuts would hit Massachusetts especially hard because the state has some of the nation's oldest housing, much of it with dangerous levels of deteriorating lead paint. Children here are more likely to suffer lead poisoning than in all but five other states, according to the latest federal data.
Congressional committees have voted to eliminate funding for lead poisoning prevention, and those cuts are expected to become law by the end of the year as legislators seek to trim spending, according to public health advocates and staffers in the US Senate and House.
``This is very concerning, because we've been appropriately advised to be more worried about children with lower levels of lead in their blood at a time when they are taking away the very resources we have all relied on to address this public health crisis,'' said Suzanne Condon, director of the Bureau of Environmental Health in the state Department of Public Health. ``This means children may go longer without being identified as having lead poisoning.''
Lead-based paint was banned for residential use in 1978 because exposure to lead can cause reduced IQ, learning disabilities, development delays, and behavioral problems in young children. But youngsters can ingest the metal when they play in and around older homes where dust and paint chips have flaked off walls and windows.
Last month, an advisory panel of doctors and scientists that shapes the lead-poisoning prevention policies of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended a new way of determining harmful levels of lead, cutting by half the amount of lead in blood deemed to be dangerous to a child's health.
``What's motivating this change is that recent reports suggest children have health effects below the old level of concern,'' said George Rhoads, professor of epidemiology at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey and chairman of the advisory committee.
He said he expects the recommendation will be questioned by people who think it goes too far or not far enough.
The panel, whose recommendations will be reviewed by the CDC next year, had previously found that children could accumulate hazardous levels of lead in their blood if they were in an area the size of a football field where the amount of lead equivalent to what's in a packet of sugar had been spread evenly. The panel's most recent recommendations mean a child could be at risk if he or she was in the same football field size area where lead equivalent to a half-packet of sugar had been spilled.
That would mean that about 8,000 children in Massachusetts would be deemed to have dangerous levels of lead, up from about 800 children found to be at risk of health problems last year in the Commonwealth.
``Lead poisoning is a preventable tragedy that dramatically impacts a child's ability to learn and has a significant cost for schools and our society,'' said US Senator Jack Reed, a Democrat from Rhode Island, which has the highest rate of lead poisoning per resident in the country.
Reed has been trying to reverse $34 million in cuts.
``Without this federal funding, fewer parents would be able to protect their children from lead hazards that may be present in their homes,'' he said in a statement.
Massachusetts has already made substantial cuts to its lead-poisoning prevention program, which now employs three people, down from 13 in fiscal 2010. That year, the state oversaw lead inspections in about 10,000 homes and provided a range of health, education, and case-management services to families.
Thousands of families are likely to lose services next year, including fewer legal actions against noncompliant landlords and less support from social workers, Condon said. The cuts would not stop screenings for children, which are done by pediatricians, but there would be fewer state staff to inspect and make follow-up visits to homes.
``These cuts are going to have a big impact, meaning more children will be exposed to lead and more will get lead poisoning,'' said Dr. Sean Palfrey, professor of pediatrics at the Boston University School of Medicine and longtime medical director of the Boston Lead Poisoning Prevention Program, which receives state and federal funding. ``Three-quarters of our work happens outside the clinic.''
Among those who have been helped by the state program is Michael Murray, 33, whose 9-month-old son was diagnosed last month with lead poisoning - three years after he and his wife had a contractor remove lead from their two-family home in Somerville. They don't know where their son ingested the lead, but they're having their home reinspected.
``It's just nerve-racking, because you can't stop something if you don't know where it's coming from,'' Murray said.
He said the state directed him to local specialists on lead poisoning, helped him find a new inspector, and sent a social worker to their house to walk the couple through what to expect.
``Without these services, I would have been a lot more panicked,'' he said.
Of the state's 2.6 million housing units, nearly 1.2 million are likely to contain lead paint, state officials said. Of those, only about 25 percent have been inspected. In all, just 9 percent of homes likely to have lead have had it removed.
In addition to state and federal cuts, private funding for lead poisoning prevention has been drying up as well.
Davida Andelman, director of the Boston Healthy Homes and Schools Collaborative, said her program has lost grants from local foundations and the federal government, and has been struggling to provide services to families with lead in their homes.
She said Boston has made major strides in reducing the incidence of lead poisoning, cutting the number of cases from nearly 6,000 in 1993 to fewer than 200 in 2010. But with the new standards and the reduced programs, she expects those numbers to spike.
``Unless a bomb razes all the buildings in Boston, there will need to be inspections and renovations that need to be done that won't get done,'' she said.
Among the beneficiaries of her program was Sobely Gonzalez, 32, whose three-decker in Dorchester had to be deleaded after her 4-year-old nephew was diagnosed with lead poisoning last year.
``We got a lot of help, and I'm not sure what we would have done without it,'' she said. ``If this money gets cut, it's going to be really bad for a lot of people.''
David Abel can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davabel.