Fewer Philadelphia children are exposed to toxic levels of lead today when compared to a decade ago, according to new data released by city health officials.
The drop has health experts and city officials hopeful that they may be able to completely eradicate lead poisonings. But they’ll first have to address rates of lead exposure that remain highest in communities with lower income and among children of color.
“The numbers in these neighborhoods are coming down, and the work that we’ve done … it really had an impact,” said City Councilmember Cindy Bass, who chairs the public health and human services committee. “So the question now is, what else do we need to do?”
In 2011, nearly 1 in 5 kids tested positive for an elevated blood lead level of at least 5 micrograms per deciliter of blood by the time they reached 3 years old.
Today, those cases are about 1 in 16 kids, according to city data.
“Those numbers are still too high,” said Dr. Cheryl Bettigole, commissioner of the city Department of Public Health. “But they show that despite Philadelphia’s large stock of older homes and apartments in which lead paint is still too common, we can make progress against lead poisoning.”
Lead exposure most commonly occurs when people inhale or ingest lead-based paint, which was used in residential homes before the federal government banned it in 1978.
An estimated 90% of homes in Philadelphia were built before that year and are more likely to contain lead paint.
A case of lead poisoning is recorded when a child’s blood contains 5 micrograms per deciliter or more. In July, the city health department expanded home lead prevention and remediation services to all children with blood lead levels of 3.5 micrograms or higher.
Continuous lead exposure, especially at great amounts, can cause health effects and lead to stunted growth and development, learning disabilities, and behavior and cognitive problems.
Philadelphia’s lead laws require all housing landlords or owners to get a lead inspection and safety certification before renting their properties to people of all ages.
The policy first took effect in 2020 in ZIP codes with the highest rates of child lead poisonings. It took effect citywide this past summer. Health experts say it’s helped prevent exposures and identify residences that need lead abatement, or the removal of sources of lead.
Despite an overall decline in cases, higher exposures continue to be concentrated in parts of North and West Philadelphia.
In nine ZIP codes that include neighborhoods Strawberry Mansion, Brewerytown, Germantown, Cobbs Creek, Haddington, and others, at least 12% or more of children there tested positive for elevated blood lead levels by age 3.
City officials say while most children get screened for lead, only about a quarter of them complete the recommended two blood tests — the first at age 1, the second at age 2.
Dr. Victor Igbokidi, medical director of pediatrics and adolescent medicine at the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, Ambulatory Health Services, said the COVID-19 pandemic created a significant obstacle to testing.
“Because of the restrictions on families and children to not come in person to the health centers,” he said. “So, we had quite a catalog of kids who were due for screening at 1 year of age, 2 years of age, but who have not come in.”
Igbokidi said community health centers have since hired pediatric navigators to conduct extended outreach and identify children and families who need screenings.
“Lead is actually the most common environmental disease of childhood and possibly the most preventable,” he added. “So, we must remain eternally vigilant to keep these numbers low.”
About 31,743 residents under 6 years old were screened for lead exposure in 2021, according to the most recent city data. That was down from more than 35,000 children who were screened in the year prior to the pandemic.
Children can get a blood lead test at their local pediatrician or primary care provider’s office.
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