Each year, nearly a thousand Louisiana children test positive for elevated blood lead levels. There are many ways children can be exposed to lead — especially in Louisiana. There are hundreds of thousands of old homes and buildings across the state that were built before 1950, a time when lead paint was often used.
Children may be exposed directly to this paint or even ingest particles, such as dust, that has been contaminated by it. High levels of lead also are present in certain toys and even some Mardi Gras beads. Additionally, lead can be found in Louisiana’s soil, food and water that flows through old lead pipes.
No lead level is known to be safe. Lead accumulates in bones, teeth and blood and can slowly poison a child. Research has shown that it can affect a child’s developing brain. Toxic lead poisoning drastically lowers children’s IQ levels. It can also impact a child’s fine motor skills and reading ability.
Additionally, some researchers have demonstrated a link between lead poisoning and a child’s ability to control impulse and aggression. This research has even linked childhood lead poisoning to crime. In extreme cases, lead poisoning can lead to death.
As parents, guardians and caregivers, our top priority should be to ensure our children’s health and safety. Regular health exams are critical to accomplish this, but we should also ensure our children are getting their blood lead levels tested.
Louisiana law calls for mandatory blood lead level screening for every child between the ages of six months and six years. Since children with high blood lead levels do not develop clinical symptoms, the only way to detect the presence of lead is through a medical screening during a child’s regularly scheduled health exam.
Doctors are required to test blood lead levels during a child’s 12 month and 24 month health exam. Unfortunately, information collected by Louisiana health regulators shows that no more than 30 percent of Louisiana children age six and younger have been screened for lead. Some parishes have even reported that only 10 to 20 percent of children have been screened.
These statistics are not acceptable. As parents and guardians, we should be asking questions to ensure our children are getting appropriate health checks. As doctors, we should be more diligent about screening children during health exams.
For parents and guardians, a simple call to the child’s doctor can confirm if blood lead level testing has been conducted. If it has not, a parent or guardian can request for it to be performed during the child’s next preventive checkup.
Since this exam is considered a preventive check, and mandated by law, insurance should cover it at no cost to the member. Medicaid beneficiaries should not be asked to pay a copay when exams are performed by their child’s provider or by a local health department. Anyone who needs help finding a provider who can perform the childhood blood lead level screening can call the customer service number on the back of their child’s health insurance card.
Lead is a dangerous substance that can negatively impact lives. It is not something we can ignore, so we implore all clinicians, parents and guardians to please take action and help us ensure a better future for children across our state.
Dr. Raymond E. Poliquit
medical director, Amerigroup Louisiana
Dr. Rebekah E. Gee
secretary, Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals