York officials highlight lead exposure, link to crime

Logan Hullinger
York Dispatch
Row homes are shown in York City, Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Katelynne Billet moved to her aged York City home in February. Now she limits her son's time inside of it and is eager to move out.

The reason, she said during a Thursday news conference with county and city officials, is because her son tested positive for elevated lead levels in his blood during a routine checkup just one month after moving in.

"It’s frustrating that (lead exposure) is not taken as seriously as it should be," Billet said. "We were lucky that it was caught early. “... I’m just trying to get out of here as soon as possible.”

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Billet's comments came as county and city officials look to tackle childhood lead exposure, which can lead to learning difficulties, behavior issues and problems with impulse control. 

Those effects can, in turn, increase the possibility of an individual committing crimes in the future, officials said.

“As long as there is lead paint in the houses, as long as there’s lead in the pipes, we’re always going to have a lead issue to deal with,” said Dr. Matt Howie, medical director of the York City Bureau of Health.

York County District Attorney Dave Sunday said municipalities can't afford to wait in combatting the prominence of lead in homes, which in York City mostly comes from paint. 

Studies show lead exposure as a child can increase the chances of a person committing violent crime by nearly 50% and lead to a much higher risk of dropping out of high school, Sunday said.

“We know that almost 40% of incoming state prison inmates have less than a 12th grade education," Sunday said. "It’s sad. It’s gut-wrenching. And we have to find a way to work on that.”

In addition to improving education, reducing lead exposure could be one way to reduce root causes of criminal behavior, Sunday said.

This year, violent crime in particular has been on the rise in the city.

There have been 39 shootings so far this year, with the city breaking records in the first two quarters. There have been eight homicides.

But the city has one main roadblock in tackling its lead issue: Funding.

Marilou Yingling, the only health bureau employee dedicated to lead abatement, said  the city only receives a small amount of money from the state for lead abatement.

The amount of funding is significantly lower than in 1978, when lead paint was first banned.

"We're just chipping away at it slowly," she said.

Although the health bureau once had universal screening, only 13% of children in the county are being screened for lead.

In addition, the city is dealing with a lack of individuals licensed to inspect for and get rid of lead in homes, Yingling said.

One way the city can bolster its lead abatement efforts is through American Rescue Plan funding, said Mayor Michael Helfrich. The city received $17.65 million in federal funds.   

Of the approximately 18,000 structures in the city, 70% are identified as residential housing. And 84% of those were built before 1978, city officials have said.

York County has the ninth highest rate of childhood lead poisoning in the state, according to http://paleadfree.org/. More than 200 children are poisoned each year.

In addition, Black children in York County are four times more likely than white children to be poisoned. Hispanic children are three times more likely, according to the organization.

A state Health Department report last year found that 3.9% of children born in 2016 and tested up until the age of 2 years old in York County had confirmed elevated blood-lead levels.

Data for York City was unavailable.

But the county numbers are  above those seen in Flint, Michigan, which discovered that a 2014 switch in the water supply had introduced lead into the city's drinking water.

In 2017, 3% of children younger than 6  — the metric used in that state — had elevated blood-lead levels in Flint, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

— Logan Hullinger can be reached at lhullinger@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @LoganHullYD.