Terry Parchem decided to drop by the Community Family Health Festival held in June at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church. He had not felt “right” for three months, experiencing headaches, stomachaches and fatigue. One of the tests offered was a free finger prick test for lead by the organization Lead Safe Louisiana.
“I thought my levels would be relatively low ... but they were way out of the ballpark,” said Parchem who works around old paints, breathing dust from sanding.
Parchem went straight to a hospital emergency room when he saw his results.
“I would never have known if I had not been tested,” he said.
While people of all ages are at risk of lead poisoning, children younger than 6 are most vulnerable due to the stages of brain development. Louisiana law requires screening, but according to the Louisiana Department of Health, fewer than 20 percent of children younger than 6 were tested during the past two recorded years. Louisiana children, 6 months to 6 years old, screened in 2002 were more than twice as likely to have high blood lead levels than the national average.
Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sets safe limits, there is no “safe” threshold of concentration.
“Children must put their hands into their mouths — that’s a given,” according to Dr. Howard Mielke, research professor in Tulane Medical School’s Department of Pharmacology. If lead dust is in the environment, children will inevitably ingest it.
“It is important for parents to be on the alert to see where their children are playing,” Mielke added. The amount of dust equal to the contents of a single packet of artificial sweetener would poison more than a thousand children, Mielke said.
“We recommend children be tested at 8 months and 18 months, before they start crawling or become too active,” said Tamara Rubin, founder of Lead Safe America Foundation, a nonprofit based in Portland, Oregon, that addresses the concerns of parents of lead-poisoned children.
Pediatricians, primary care physicians or Women, Infants and Children Clinics can test for lead.
Without screening, lead poisoning can easily go undetected because its symptoms are subtle. Learning disabilities, poor test scores and behavioral problems often manifest when children are lead poisoned.
Only a small exposure is necessary for children to be affected.
In the past, lead was commonly used in products such as paint, plumbing pipes and gasoline. Residual gasoline can be found in the soil, particularly along highly trafficked routes where fuel emissions, industrial pollutants and dust collect from deteriorating properties.
Lead paint is most dangerous when it is chipping or dry sanded, spewing dust into the surrounding air and soil.
The most common sources of lead are dust and soil contaminated by lead-based paint from older housing stock. If a house was built before 1978 — the year lead was banned from household paint — and has not been properly remediated, it probably contains lead-based paint.
Although lead affects all socioeconomic groups, poverty is a major risk factor because low-income housing is more often in disrepair.
Lead also can be found in food, batteries, cigarettes, cosmetics, plastics, solders, toys, nutritional supplements, pottery, ammunition and antique metal objects such as jewelry.
“People need to be made constantly aware because lead is ubiquitous and it is invisible,” said Beth Butler, president of Lead Safe America.
Lead Safe America Foundation will send free 3M/LeadCheck test kits to any family who requests one via email to firstname.lastname@example.org with “Test Kit” in the subject line.
To be notified of upcoming screenings, email email@example.com.