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As lead problem unfolds in Flint, attention turns toward cities like Allentown by Nicole Radzievich Contact Reporter of The Morning Call

As lead problem unfolds in Flint, attention turns toward cities like Allentown

Lehigh Valley’s battle with lead isn’t in the water

In Michigan, the city of Flint is struggling to deliver safe water to residents, and families are anxiously monitoring their children for signs of lead poisoning.

It’s a humanitarian and governmental catastrophe for an impoverished city where lead from old and corroded pipes has been leaching into drinking water. Exposure to the heavy metal can cause developmental delays in children and neurological problems for all ages. In cases of extreme exposure, it can kill.

But the threat of lead poisoning plagues communities all over the country, including Pennsylvania, where 13,171 children were found to have lead levels high enough to cause the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concern. Allentown, in particular, is leading the pack.

The difference is that the public health issue here hasn’t been caused by a switch in water supply or any catastrophic event. The most likely culprit, local health officials say, is in the air.

Homes built before 1978, when lead was banned from paint, may still have chipped, leaded paint on window sills. Each time the window opens, a plume of dust goes into the air. Children can breathe in the lead dust or swallow the dust that settles on a pacifier or favorite toy.

Even small amounts of lead can build up in a child’s system, causing damage over time. The lead attacks many organs, particularly the brain, and can cause devastating damage.

“Right now, everybody is thinking water because it is the issue in Flint … ,” said Gary Ritter, manager of environmental field services at Allentown’s health bureau. “But the primary lead exposure for children here is the lead paints in the older housing stock and the maintenance of those homes.”

The CDC estimates 24 million housing units nationwide have deteriorated leaded paint and elevated levels of lead-contaminated house dust, and more than 4 million are homes to children. Pennsylvania ranks third in the nation for having the most housing units built before 1950, and fourth in the nation for having housing units built before 1978.

The issue has been on the radar of health agencies for years as they ramp up the number of children who are tested from 131,150 in 2007 to 140,524 in 2014.

Meanwhile, the number of children tested and shown to have elevated lead in their blood levels in 2014 dropped by 6.8 percent over the previous year, according to a 2014 surveillance report issued by the Pennsylvania Department of Health.

Statewide, 9.37 percent of children younger than 7 tested had blood levels of 5 micrograms per deciliter, the measure the CDC uses to define an elevated blood lead level. But the Lehigh Valley’s three cities scored much higher. At 23 percent, Allentown leads the state. Bethlehem’s rate is 14.32 percent, and Easton’s 15.9 percent.

Allentown has made headlines in years past, including in 2004, when a family won a $1 million settlement in a 1997 lawsuit that contended their son, Jamar Harris, suffered lead poisoning after ingesting paint in the family’s apartment in the 700 block of Liberty Street.

Allentown’s numbers got national attention this week as vox.com published a report highlighting Allentown’s high rates, prompting a flurry of activity on social media and calls to the Lehigh County Authority, which operates the city’s water system.

Pennsylvania Health Secretary Dr. Karen Murphy issued a release Thursday reminding the public of a toll-free Lead Information Line (1-800-440-LEAD) and other resources, including possible home inspections.

It is difficult to compare Pennsylvania’s rate with other states because the state doesn’t require children to be tested by a certain age. Some states, including New Jersey, have a universal testing law.

And not all communities in Pennsylvania test the same amount of children. In Philadelphia, 27 percent of children under 7 were tested. Allentown tested 19.5 percent, Bethlehem 15.8 percent and Easton 31.6 percent.

Health professionals say more work needs to be done, both in testing and minimizing risks in the home.

Bethlehem secured a grant, which expired last May, to inspect the homes of 22 families whose children tested with elevated levels, and leaded paint in old homes was the predominant cause.

Jessica Lucas, director of environmental health programs at the Bethlehem Health Bureau, said the city tries to pare the risk by identifying lead issues, such as peeling paint, during rental or sale inspections.

“Lead affects every system but the lungs. We often say asbestos damages the lungs and lead damages everything else,” Lucas said. “Think about how much development there is in a child during their first six years … with lead poisoning, that damage can be permanent.”

As in Flint, water can become tainted when it passes through lead pipes, brass plumbing fixtures and other plumbing configurations that use lead solder, according to the Lehigh County Authority.

Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton Suburban follow U.S. Environmental Protection Agency guidelines: Water must be tested every three years by sampling the water in homes. None of those tests reported high levels of lead.

None of the region’s water mains are made of lead, but some service lines are. While the authorities do replace lead lines, the homeowner is responsible for the service line from the curb to the home.

Water agencies also add a corrosion control inhibitor that reacts with the water pipe’s wall to prevent heavy metals like lead from leeching off the piping and out of the spigot.

Lehigh County Authority’s water, in particular, is hard, which reduces the possibility of lead leaching from pipes. The hard water builds up a film on the pipe, creating a physical barrier.

Copyright © 2016, The Morning Call
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