York kids' confirmed lead levels high

Katherine Ranzenberger

As members of Congress hold hearings on the Flint, Michigan, water crisis, more people are concerned about the levels of lead in their children’s blood and the level of exposure their children have.

Dr. Matt Howie

At first glance, York City children seem to show high lead blood levels at an alarming rate — 12.41 percent, or nearly four times the 3.62 percent of Flint children.

A closer look reveals those were initial, unconfirmed reports. More thorough testing showed only 2.11 percent of York City children tested had confirmed elevated blood lead levels.

In York City, 34 of the 1,612 children tested had levels of lead in their blood at two times or more the federal standard, according to the state Department of Health.

The Pennsylvania 2014 Childhood Lead Surveillance Annual Report states confirmed elevated results are defined as one venous blood draw with a result of 10 micrograms per deciliter of blood. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines elevated levels at 5 micrograms per deciliter of blood.

Michigan follows the recommendation of the CDC for confirmed levels, confirming cases that are 5 micrograms per deciliter of blood or higher.

The Pennsylvania report warns not to compare the results of the report with states that have universal or mandatory testing because it is not universal in the commonwealth. Michigan is a mandatory testing state.

Rebecca Aubrey, R.N., left, takes a blood sample from one-year-old Ian Zinn's toe, as his mother Jamie Zinn, of Glen Rock, comforts him at Pediatric Care of York, P.C. in York, Pa. on Thursday, Feb. 4, 2016. (Dawn J. Sagert - The York Dispatch)

At either level, It's hardly something to ignore.

“There is no safe level for lead in the blood,” said Dr. Matt Howie, medical director of the Bureau of Health for the City of York. “Lead is a villain that’s not going to go away. It’s all about the paint, and window sills are the worst culprits."

That brings up another big difference between Flint and York's lead situation.

“Flint’s issue is a water-quality issue,” Howie said. “Aging houses in this country are the problem. The dominant source of high blood lead levels is lead paint and dust.”

York v. Flint: Flint has dominated the news cycle lately, from presidential candidates discussing the lead leaching into the water to congressional hearings on the safety of the drinking water in the Michigan city. Flint is located in Genesee County in the Saginaw Bay region of the state.

According to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, in 2013 — the most recent year for which reliable data is available, according to the state's Department of Health and Human Services — 3.62 percent of the children in Genesee County had confirmed blood lead levels above 5 micrograms per deciliter, the federal threshold for dangerous levels of lead in the blood.

In 2013, only 11 of the 7,067 children tested in Genesee County had blood lead levels above 10 micrograms per deciliter of blood, or 0.16 percent. These are confirmed reports.

In Pennsylvania, the state Department of Health recently released its 2014 childhood lead surveillance annual report, which showed only 1.43 percent of children in York County had confirmed elevated blood lead levels. However, this is confirmed at the 10 micrograms per deciliter level, twice the federal threshold.

National online publication Vox posted a story Feb. 3 stating blood lead levels of 12.41 percent of York City children were above the federal threshold. These are the unconfirmed reports.

For comparison, 10.11 percent of York County children had unconfirmed elevated blood lead levels, according to the state Department of Health.

In 2014, 122 children of the 3,045 tested in Flint had elevated lead levels above 5 micrograms per deciliter, or 4.01 percent of children tested. That is up from 2013, when 85 of the 2,345 children tested, or 3.62 percent, were above the federal threshold.

Only eight children in Flint were above the 10 micrograms per deciliter threshold Pennsylvania uses, or 0.3 percent of those tested. Michigan has not released 2014 results that show how many children were above the 10 micrograms threshold.

In York City, 34 of the 1,612 children tested had levels of lead in their blood above 10 micrograms per deciliter, or 2.11 percent of those tested.

Testing kids in York County: Typically, Howie said, children in York County are tested at 9 months and 18 months during their checkups. Children are more mobile at 18 months, he said, and it's a time when they're exploring and putting more things in their mouths. The federal standard is to test children at 1 and 2 years of age.

Children have to do a finger stick test, where blood is drawn from a capillary on their finger. If the lead level comes back high, Howie said, doctors will then confirm it with a venous draw of blood.

“This elevated level could be a false positive,” he said. “The finger could not have been cleaned correctly, and the kid could have lead dust on their finger.”

The cases in Flint that were reported were confirmed through venous draws, said Angela Minicuci, a spokeswoman for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

“We do have varying percentages across the county,” she said. “This depends on the age of the home these children grew up in.”

Dealing with lead: Howie said the main culprit of lead in children’s blood is from paint or dust that makes its way into the child. York has a lot of buildings built before 1978, when building standards changed to exclude lead from paint.

“This is a chronic and old problem," he said. "Any city that has aging housing stock, you’re going to have this issue."

Wet mopping your floors twice a week and wiping down counters frequently will prevent dust that could contain lead from collecting on flat surfaces, Howie said.

“A good layer of latex paint over lead paint can make a big difference,” he said. “Make sure it’s well maintained, too.”

Making sure baby furniture such as cribs is new is also a key in making sure your child isn’t exposed to lead, Howie said. Older baby furniture that may be passed down through generations may contain lead paint, and children that age put everything in their mouths.

“Make sure it’s been made after 1978,” Howie said. “That’s not an area you want to save money in.”