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Lead levels down, but not out

Lead poisoning levels are down, but the risk to children is still out there.

That’s the message being promoted during National Lead Poisoning Prevention Week, which ended Saturday.

Through sustained state prevention efforts and public awareness campaigns, the Illinois Department of Public Health reported a 93 percent decrease in the rates of children with lead poisoning since 1997. The numbers of Illinois children younger than 6 years old with elevated levels of lead in their blood was 45,809 in 1997. In 2011, that number dropped to 3,164.

“Although childhood lead poisoning rates in Illinois remain high, we are extremely pleased that the coordinated, strategic efforts of our Illinois Lead Program have worked toward such a dramatic decline in the number of lead poisoned children statewide,” said IDPH Director Dr. LaMar Hasbrouck.

Debbie Piper, director of health promotions at the Bureau and Putnam County Health Department, agreed that lead cases are down, but the problem still exists. Piper said the lead screenings naturally increase in the fall, and she is following three new cases right now.

Illinois law calls for each day care center, preschool, kindergarten or other child care facility to require each parent or legal guardian of a child between the ages of 6 months and 6 years provide a statement from a physician or health care provider that the child has been screened or assessed for lead poisoning.

Not all children are required to undergo a blood test following the assessment. One of the biggest factor is where the child lives.

“There are a lot of older homes in the county,” Piper said.

Paint from before 1978 was usually lead-based. That paint is still around in many older homes, and is stirred up during remodeling.

Piper said even if children don’t live in an older home, they can still be at risk if they frequently visit someone such as grandparents or a babysitter who lives in an older home.

Piper said other issues with high levels of lead that aren’t generally seen in Bureau County are babies being brought in from overseas and exposed to kohl eyeliner, which Piper said is hugely high in lead.

Lead poisoning affects 250,000 children between the ages of 1 and 5 nationally. Lead poisoning can affect nearly every system in the body, causing learning disabilities, shortened attention spans and, in extreme cases, seizures, coma and death.

There is no safe level of lead in the body, and the only way to determine whether a child is lead poisoned is to perform a blood test. Most children who get lead in their body do not have any physical symptoms.

Piper said concerns used to be about test results of 10 to 15 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood, but now officials are concerned about readings as low as five to 10.

“Even low levels of lead can result in neurological and behavior problems,” Piper said.

Piper said it’s good to first test a child considered at risk for lead poisoning when they are about 1 year old, and then again at the age of 2.

“We do think it’s still important,” she said.

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