Lead exposure in Wisconsin is above national average

Lisa Neff, Staff writer

Wisconsin’s lead poisoning level among children is higher than the national average and disproportionately affects minority children, a new report shows.

The 2015 poisoning rate here among children under the age of 6 is 4.6 percent, according to the report released this fall by the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families, a policy and advocacy group.

The report also reveals a disproportionate number of lead-poisoning diagnoses among African-American children in the state. About 10 percent of African-American children under age 6 had lead poisoning.

Among white children under age 6 — a larger number were tested — about 2.9 percent had high blood lead levels.

Lead poisoning can have a negative impact on brain development and damage the nervous system in children. It also is linked to increased rates of learning and intellectual disabilities, as well as increased aggression, according to Leland Pan, who wrote the report.

The poisoning percentage represented a decrease from 6.4 percent in 2013 and 7.1 percent in 2012, but Wisconsin’s rate remains higher than the national average.

The report also reveals geographic disparities — the rate in Milwaukee was 8.6 percent and rates in Watertown, Buffalo County and Sheboygan County ranged from 6.2 percent to 8.6 percent.

The WCCF based its report on 2015 data from the state Department of Health Services.

Lead sources

The analysis finds many children exposed to lead-based paint in older homes in the state; lead was not banned from paint until 1978.

The report also noted at least 176,000 lead service lines that carry water to Wisconsin households and businesses. The counties with the highest number of lead service lines include Milwaukee, Racine, Manitowoc, Kenosha and Marathon.

“Blood lead poisoning is a preventable problem,” said Ken Taylor, WCCF’s executive director. “We know what the problem is, what the solutions are and what the benefits of investing in prevention and amelioration efforts are. We owe it to Wisconsin’s children to do as much as we can to prevent them from being poisoned by lead.”

The solutions outlined in the report include:

• Reinstituting an initiative involving the state Department of Human Services and Wisconsin Medicaid to test and track children.

• Offering low- or no-interest loans to property owners to remove lead paint and lead pipes. WCCF suggested a pilot program with funding from the state-run Injured Patients and Families Compensation Fund.

• Expanding a Department of Natural Resources service line program that provides funding to municipalities for the replacement of lead lines.

Meanwhile, at the national level, a coalition of groups is urging the EPA to strengthen standards and enforcement for lead in air, house paint, dust, soil and drinking water.

The groups also want the FDA to withdraw approval for cosmetics and food products that contain lead and have called on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to adopt stronger worker protection standards, including for pregnant women, to reduce exposure to lead.

Exposure and risk

Lead is a potent neurotoxin with no safe level of exposure.

Elevated blood lead levels harm young children’s developing brains, leading to learning disabilities, loss of IQ points and behavioral issues.

Also, lead — which the human body mistakes for calcium — is “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen” and prolonged exposure is associated with high blood pressure, heart disease, kidney disease and reduced fertility.

Source: EarthJustice