Lead poisoning: It’s not just for poor kids anymore

Published on
March 11, 2009

One would think that everything that could possibly be said about lead poisoning has been printed, broadcast and e-mailed around the globe countless times.

We have been seeing lead paint stories in newspapers and on local "Eye on Health" broadcasts for three decades now. The Nation did an incredible job documenting everything that anyone would want to know about lead in gasoline in 2000, and this writer helped expose the dangers of lead in candy in 2005.

One constant in most of the coverage has been that poor kids, and especially poor minority kids, suffer more when it comes to lead poisoning. Well, the CDC offers a new twist in its invaluable Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. (If you are a health reporter, and you don't at least skim these weekly reports, you should.)

A New York State study showed that more than one in 10 kids who reported high blood lead levels were linked to recent "renovation, repair and painting" (RRP.) The CDC noted, "The increase in the relative burden of RRP-related cases might signal a shift in populations at risk for lead exposure in New York state."

Translation: People who own older homes and have the money to do home renovations are increasing their children's risk of lead poisoning. Who is more likely to be moving into a 19th Century brownstone, tearing out walls and replacing rotten plumbing? A family of recent immigrants who make $30,000 a year, or a family of up-and-comers?

There are two trends happening in New York (and Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta and other cities) that could prove that lead poisoning is becoming less and less a low income affliction. First, the old parts of town are filling in again with higher income buyers. Second, people have been using the home equity money they took out during the housing boom of the last few years to modernize those old houses and apartments.

Intrepid reporters could start with census data (or a more local economic barometer from a university or nonprofit survey) showing median income levels by city and then find two cities of comparable size but different economic characteristics. You could also use unemployment data to compare areas, but most states, like California, only provide that data down to the county level.

Once you have areas to compare, you could then go to the city's planning departments and ask for a tally of all renovation work permits for those cities. Get them to give it to you in a simple table or spreadsheet form year by year for the last 10 years. Don't go and start flipping through the actual permits until you have a sense of the big picture. Once you have areas you want to compare, you could go to the permits to find people for examples in your story.

The next step would be to talk with the city's health departments (in some cases it would be at the county level) and find out if they track lead poisoning numbers. If they do, you would have the third leg of the stool. If they don't, you might have to rely on anecdotes or rough estimates from local hospitals that are seeing patients from those areas. Sometimes children's hospitals keep their own statistics.

Some of you are getting ready to fire off an e-mail right now saying, "How do we know all these houses have lead paint in them?" Well, you don't. Most houses built prior to 1978 were painted with lead paint. This is where a reporter's local knowledge plays an important role. And it might require a public records request.

Because of all the attention paid to lead poisoning states and counties have set up programs focused on figuring out where lead paint, is and which kids are at risk. One good example is the Arizona Childhood Lead Poisoning Targeted Screening Plan. The state has come up with 99 ZIP codes where at least a quarter of the homes are at high risk for toxic paint.

If you were a reporter near some of those ZIP codes, you could look at renovation permits and income (or jobless) data for ZIPs at high and low risk and write a story about the quiet resurgence of lead poisoning. Nationally, blood lead levels have dropped dramatically since the mid-1970s, when nearly 90 percent of all kids had high blood lead levels. In 2002, fewer than 3 percent did.

My hunch is that you would see that same drop in most areas followed by an uptick in lead poisoning in the areas where there has been a revived interest in pre-1978 homes.. That new kitchen you just put into your renovated toy factory loft might have released a tornado of poisonous particles into the air your kids are breathing every day.

The story would challenge readers not to think of lead poisoning as a poor kids' problem. And it would remind people that the effects of lead poisoning are so insidious that you won't necessarily know that your child is suffering. As the New York State Department of Health noted, "No level is considered safe."