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Lead problem persists in county

March 6, 2011
By MICHAEL ANICH, The Leader-Herald

JOHNSTOWN - Fulton County has a high rate of lead poisoning among its young children, especially at it's population center, and the situation has caught the attention of state officials.

"Gloversville has one of the highest rates and it's due to the old housing stock," says county Public Health Director Denise Frederick.

The state Department of Health's latest public statistics related to elevated lead levels among children and lead poisoning cases only goes back to 2007. But Frederick said lead poisoning continues to be a problem in the county, and the state has recognized that with additional grant funding for the Public Health Department's lead testing program.

The DOH website says Fulton County is one of the few counties in New York state with the percentage of young children with elevated lead levels in the 4 to 5 percent range. The state average is 1.1 percent, and the situation actually used to be worse years ago.

"The rate of lead poisoning has fallen over time, but it's still significantly higher than the state," Frederick said.

At particular risk are children living in homes built earlier than 1970, she said.

Fact Box

Lead poisoning

These statistics, from the New York state Department of Health, show the number of children tested for lead poisoning from 2005 to 2007 in the local area and statewide. Also shown is the average number of children who tested positive for lead poisoning, per 1,000 children tested, from 2005 to 2007.

Fulton County: 753 tested; 40.2 positive per 1,000 tested.

Montgomery County: 861 tested; 41.4 positive per 1,000 tested.

Hamilton County: 40 tested; 25 positive per 1,000 tested.

Statewide: 201,409 tested; 10.4 positive per 1,000 tested.

The DOH website says Fulton County had 128 children with elevated blood levels from 2004 to 2007, which equated to 4.1 percent of the children tested. Montgomery County also had 144 children with elevated blood levels from 2004-2007 during that time period - 4. 2 percent of those tested. Hamilton County had three children with elevated levels, or 1.7 percent of those tested.

Frederick said her office on Route 29 tries to educate the public and test children for high lead levels, but the major housing lead abatement work is done through a regional DOH office in Herkimer.

One of the biggest dangers from lead is children touching a dangerous surface or substance and then putting their fingers in their mouth, Frederick said.

"Lead is a neurotoxin," she said. "It can cause brain damage ... You should take it seriously."

One of the best responses to possible lead exposure is good nutrition, she said.

Dr. Banshi Mehta, a longtime Mayfield-based pediatrician, has only seen a couple lead problems in his young patients the last several years.

"There has not been that much," Mehta said. "We check blood levels at nine months and then two years."

Dr. Lawrence Horowitz, a Gloversville-based pediatrician in practice since 1974, said "occasionally" local pediatricians still see problems.

"Historically, it's getting better," he said. "A lot of kids are in new housing. Public housing is new and well maintained ... It's still a major concern."

Statistics have shown Montgomery County also has had some elevated lead levels in children in recent years. Montgomery County Director of Public Health Kim Conboy, public information officer for her agency, could not be reached for comment last week.

Root Supervisor John Thayer, chairman of the Montgomery County Board of Supervisors' Health and Human Services Committee, said he personally doesn't remember any recent lead concerns being brought up before his county. But he said the old housing always presents a lead hazard anywhere you go.

"I can't imagine any town or village in New York state that hasn't had a problem," Thayer said.

Health issue

The DOH website says childhood lead poisoning is a preventable, but very serious environmental health problem. Lead is a metal and the most common cause of childhood lead poisoning is dust and paint chips from old lead-based paint found in older homes. The state requires health care providers to test children with a blood lead test at age 1 and again at age 2.

Lead can be found in dust, air, water, soil and in some products used in and around our homes, the website said.

Lead can harm a young child's growth, behavior and ability to learn. Children younger than 6 years old are more likely to get lead poisoning than any other age group.

Most often, children get lead poisoning from breathing in or swallowing dust from old lead paint on floors and windowsills, hands and toys. Lead also can be passed from mother to baby during pregnancy.

Elevated lead levels can result in developmental delays and, if not treated, can result in brain damage.

The department operates a lead-testing clinic once a month at its Route 29 office for children with no insurance. But most children receive a prescription from their family physician to have the test performed at a hospital laboratory. Tests are provided to all children between 6 months and 6- years-old.

In February, Frederick reported to the Fulton County Board of Supervisors' Health Services Committee the county will get twice the state aid it normally receives for lead testing, a possible recognition of the county's high rate of lead poisoning among children up to 6 years of age. She said the county in early January was informed it will receive up to $23,732 in a grant to offset her department's lead-program expenditures.

Frederick said the figure represents an increase in prior years' grant funding. The county received about $11,000 last year, she said.

For several years, she said, the county would receive only $5,000 in lead-grant money. She said she told the state Department of Health about the "high incidence" of elevated lead cases in the county, which led to the allocation being increased to $11,000.

DOT spokesman Jeffrey Hammond said Fulton County receives a Lead Poisoning Prevention Program grant from DOH. He said the grant support an array of local efforts to prevent, identify and manage the problem of childhood lead poisoning provided "through comprehensive local lead poisoning prevention programs" operated in accordance with state Public Health Law.

"At a state level, we have seen a dramatic decline in the incidence and severity of childhood lead poisoning," Hammond said.

He said the decline is attributable to a combination of factors, including the continued impact of environmental policy changes, such as removing lead from paint and gasoline; increased attention to identifying and remediating lead hazards before children become poisoned, and improved routine blood screening and testing of children to identify and reduce potential lead exposure.

According to the 2000 census, 41.6 percent of Fulton County homes were built prior to 1940, Frederick said. She said 67.3 percent of the homes in Gloversville were built before 1940, and 94.5 percent before 1970.

In June 2009, then-Gov. David Paterson issued Executive Order No. 21 to establish the Governor's Task Force on the Prevention of Childhood Lead Poisoning. The Task Force is composed of state agency representatives. Its purpose is to reduce childhood lead poisoning through increased inter-agency collaboration and coordination.

According to the DOH, lead abatement includes all actions necessary to discontinue a condition conducive to lead poisoning and may include encapsulation, replacement, enclosure, or removal.

DOH issued a report in 2007, "Eliminating Childhood Lead Poisoning in New York State," which stated that lead is "among the most common environmental toxins for young children in New York state."

"Lead poisoning is associated with serious and lifelong adverse health, developmental and cognitive outcomes that are completely preventable," the report states. "Elimination of childhood lead poisoning is essential to improving the lives of children in New York state, especially socio-economically disadvantaged children who are disproportionately affected by lead poisoning. New York has made significant progress towards reducing both the incidence and severity of childhood lead poisoning. Despite this success, childhood lead poisoning remains a serious public health problem."

Michael Anich covers Johnstown and Fulton County news. He can be reached at johnstown@leaderherald.com

 
 

 

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