Old housing heightens risk of lead poisoning

Don Knight | The Herald BulletinDr. Tony McHerron, a Community Hospital pediatrician, prepares to take blood for a lead exposure test on Maddux Stigall as his mother, Chelsea, keeps him calm during his 18-month checkup on Thursday. "We screen every single child for lead exposure," McHerron said.

ANDERSON — In 2014, there were 7,367 children in Madison County under the age of 4, according to data compiled by the Indiana Youth Institute.

Only 725 were screened for lead contamination, however, and of that number 78 children tested positive for lead poisoning, a rate of 97 per 1,000 children tested, according to the most recent 2014 Surveillance Report from the Indiana State Department of Health.

That rate means Madison County had the fourth highest lead poisoning rate among large Indiana counties.

Scary news, especially considering the alarming rates of lead contamination discovered recently in Flint, Michigan's water supply.

Indiana's lead contamination problem isn't in the water, it's covering the walls of the state's aging housing stock.

Approximately 63 percent of Indiana houses were built before 1978 when lead-based paint was banned from residential use.

In Madison County, that figure is 75 percent, said Mike Mettler, director of environmental public health at the state health department.

"There's really no safe level of lead," he said. "The hazards are present and the risks are real."

As it breaks down with age, ingestion and inhalation of lead-based paint remain a serious health concern, especially for children between the ages of 1 and 3, experts say.

But one local doctor on Thursday questioned the accuracy of the health department's data, particularly the low screening numbers.

"We screen every single child for lead exposure," said Dr. Tony McHerron, pediatrician who practices at Community Hospital Anderson.

McHerron and his colleagues perform blood tests for lead exposure on children at 12 and 18 months during regular wellness visits.

"I can probably count on both my hands the number of children who tested positive," he said, in the nearly four years he's practiced in Anderson.

McHerron said he's notified local and state public health officials about children who have elevated levels of lead, but does not report results of screenings that are negative, which may well explain the disparity between the state's data and local physician experience.

Under Indiana law, lead exposure testing is mandatory for all children who receive Medicaid benefits, and those results are reported to the state.

That same requirement apparently does not extend to children covered by private insurance, although McHerron said that in his experience testing is routine.

Children who participate in federal Head Start are also subject to mandatory lead exposure testing, said Nicole Miles, state health coordinator for Transition Resources Corp., the organization that runs those programs in Madison and Delaware counties.

She said a lot of children accepted into Head Start programs have not received lead and hemoglobin tests from their health care providers.

"We frequently have to be the ones who initiate those tests," she said.

Still, the number of children who test high is relatively low. Of 350 children in Madison County who participate in Head Start programs, only eight have recorded high levels of lead.

"We don't have a high number of children who test high, but when we do have one, we have a process in place and we act promptly," Miles said.

Like Stu Hirsch on Facebook and follow him @stuhirsch on Twitter, or call 640-4861.

​Like Stu Hirsch on Facebook and follow him @stuhirsch on Twitter, or call 640-4861.

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Native of Maryland who moved to Indiana 20 years ago. I've covered every news beat imaginable over a long career as an editor and reporter. I am currently the courts reporter for The Herald Bulletin.