In response to the childhood lead poisoning crisis in Flint, Michigan, Senator Bob Casey, Jr. held a roundtable on April 11th at CHOP to discuss what might be done to prevent such a crisis in Pennsylvania. According to the CDC, Pennsylvania is one of the top five states in the US with the highest percentage of young children exposed to lead. Joining the roundtable discussion included COEC Deputy Director Richard Pepino, MS; CHOP Poison Control Center Medical Director Kevin Osterhoudt, MD and Associate Medical Director Fred Henretig, MD; CHOP Policy Lab Senior Psychologist Marsha Gerdes, PhD, as well as other experts on childhood lead exposure in Pennsylvania.
Senator Casey was interested in learning if there were cities in Pennsylvania that might experience a crisis similar to Flint’s, as well as what could be done to mitigate the risk to children in the targeted age bracket of 0-6 years old. Cities that were discussed included Chester, Reading, Allentown, Scranton, and Philadelphia.
Casey characterized the number of Pennsylvania children exposed to lead as ‘startling’. In 2014, over one percent of Pennsylvania children 7 years old or younger had a blood lead level of 5 mg/dL or greater, according to the latest PADOH annual Childhood Lead Surveillance report. However, this statistic masks the presence of Pennsylvania cities that might be considered childhood lead hotspots. For example, in 2014, 16.14 % of children in Reading, 19.46% in Scranton, and 23.11% in Allentown had elevated blood lead levels. In Flint, childhood elevated blood lead levels doubled from 2.4% to 4.9% during the drinking water crisis. The numbers in these hotspot Pennsylvania cities may be significantly higher than the numbers coming out of Flint. There is no level of exposure to lead that doesn’t cause harm, especially in the developing systems of children. Senator Casey acknowledged this fact and reiterated his call for the passage of the Drinking Water Safety and Infrastructure Act, which would provide more than $700M in subsidized loans for state water systems. Senator Casey asked that the next step for Penn be to assess our communities to identify potential interventions that would require support from the Senator’s office. It is imperative that action be taken before more Pennsylvania children have the course of their futures tragically altered by an undue lead exposure. The COEC is currently examining potential cost-effective pathways of reducing possible lead exposures from older lead service lines that bring drinking water into residential and rental properties from city water mains.
Mr. Pepino suggested that the best way to mitigate the most immediate risk would be to identify the presence of lead paint via the distribution of simple, cheap, lead test kits. Other members of the roundtable spoke to the best ways to reduce exposure to lead in soil, in addition to how the government might best support these efforts. Potential solutions included providing tax credits for families for removing lead in their homes, enforcing the housing code, as well as requiring landlords to provide only “lead-safe” rental properties to families having young children who are particularly vulnerable to lead exposure. Prevention was emphasized as the most important priority for combatting childhood lead poisoning.