Like any new mother, Bianca Rodriguez worried about all kinds of potential illnesses and injuries that could strike her baby boy, Rodney.
Lead poisoning was one possibility she never considered.
Hidden within the walls of older homes, lead poses an invisible but significant risk to children, families, and the community, causing potential health issues that can range from developmental delays to death, in extreme cases. Because lead poisoning has no obvious symptoms and also no cure, prevention is critically important.
“Lead in the home is a serious and dangerous health issue, especially for young children and mothers-to-be,” said Jeffrey R. Martin, MD, chair of Family and Community Medicine at Lancaster General Hospital (LGH).
Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health (LG Health) recently launched Lead-Free Families, a community health improvement initiative aimed at eliminating childhood lead poisoning in Lancaster County. Through a $50 million investment by LG Health, the program aims to identify and remediate lead hazards in at least 2,800 high-risk local homes over the next decade.
In addition to in-home lead testing and removal, Lead-Free Families will work to increase screening for children and pregnant women, while also providing community education and public policy advocacy. The comprehensive program, which is a key component of LG Health’s overall commitment to improving community health, is the first of its kind in the United States to be initially funded and led by a health system.
“By working together with our community partners, we can help bring an end to the silent epidemic of childhood lead poisoning in Lancaster County,” Martin said.
According to the 2010 United States Census, 45 percent of county households include a child under the age of 6 or a pregnant woman, two groups that are especially susceptible to the damaging effects of lead exposure. Additionally, some 91,000 homes in the county were built prior to 1978, when lead was banned for use in paint and other consumer products.
Frances C. Gross, DO, chair of Pediatrics at LGH, said that together these two factors — the prevalence of both young children and older homes — increase local families’ vulnerability to the potentially devastating impacts of lead exposure. Indeed, Lancaster County reports the fourth-highest rate of lead poisoning in Pennsylvania.
“Children in our community are far more likely to have lead poisoning than their peers across the state,” said Gross, who, like Martin, has been a long-time advocate for raising awareness about the dangers of lead in the community. “This is a dubious distinction and one that we must change for the sake of today’s children and for future generations.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the problem, she said, as children are spending more time in houses with potential lead hazards and may be visiting their health care provider less frequently. Many local providers have reported seeing more children with elevated blood lead levels in recent months.
Over time, lead-based paint breaks down, causing chipping and peeling, and creating dust that is rapidly absorbed into a growing child’s brain, bones, and kidneys, Gross explained. Once lead enters a child’s system, it cannot be removed, and no medicine or treatment can stop its damaging mental and physical effects. Fortunately, lead poisoning is 100 percent preventable by removing lead hazards in the home before significant exposure occurs.
In addition to making homes safer for children and families, Lead-Free Families will work with local health care providers to emphasize the importance of early lead screening in children. Currently Lancaster County children are not consistently screened for blood lead levels, which involves a simple finger-stick blood test in a provider’s office.
“Most children with detectable levels of lead in their blood have no obvious symptoms,” Gross said. “That’s why it is so important that every child between the ages of 9 months and 3 years old be tested for lead in their blood.”
Lead poisoning can cause permanent health problems, including developmental delays, learning and behavioral problems, lower IQ, and mental health challenges. As the child gets older, these issues can lead to criminal behavior and incarceration, impacting not just individuals but also families and communities as a whole.
Lead exposure can be just as devastating for pregnant women, Martin said, leading to a greater risk for complications that include low birth weight; premature birth; damage to the baby’s brain, kidneys, and nervous system; and even miscarriage.
Removing lead from homes can lead to positive impacts for children, families and the community, he said, including improved academic outcomes, lower education costs, greater lifetime earning potential, and reduced risk of criminal behavior.
“With Lead-Free Families, LG Health hopes to make a measurable impact on lead poisoning’s insidious effects on our children and families — especially for the most vulnerable in our communities — and welcome a brighter future for us all,” Martin said.
Rodriguez and her husband, Rodney Skaggs Jr., were surprised when baby Rodney tested positive for elevated blood lead levels at a routine checkup. They were referred to Lead-Free Families, which helped them test their rental apartment for lead. The testing revealed lead paint in several areas, including the front door, window frames, and a closet door.
Though the program, lead removal will be completed at no cost to the couple and a small cost to their landlord. (The price of lead removal varies based on home size and other factors, but the average cost for a three-bedroom home is $12,000.) In addition, the program will cover the cost of a hotel stay for the family while the work is being done, which can take anywhere from two to 10 days.
“The possibility of lead exposure was something we never thought about for our son,” Rodriguez said. “We are really grateful to Lead-Free Families for helping us to get this issue resolved.”
For more information, visit LeadFreeFamilies.org or call 717-544-LEAD (5323).