Nearly 1,500 children under the age of 6 tested positive for lead poisoning in 2014, according to the latest numbers from the state Department of Public Health.
Overall, the number of lead-poisoned children in Connecticut was about the same in 2014 as in 2013, with the total rising by 9 children. In 2014, 2,284 children under 6 were diagnosed as lead-poisoned, compared with 2,275 in 2013.
The numbers are roughly equal because some children diagnosed with lead poisoning are cleared after being treated for it, they turn 6 and so are no longer followed by the state, or their families leave the state.
But at a combined hearing of the legislature’s Committees on Children and Public Health on Monday, a state Department of Public Health official conceded that those numbers and other state lead statistics may be misleading because of the deficiencies of lead screening in Connecticut.
Krista M. Veneziano, program coordinator for the DPH Lead, Radon, and Health Homes Program, told committee members that just 53 percent of children age 3 and under received the two screenings, a year apart, as required by state law.
She said the department has been taking steps, such as a summer webinar, to get the message across to pediatricians and regional lead clinics that every child must receive two blood lead level screenings before turning 3. Children older than 3 and younger than 6 who move to Connecticut also must be screened.
C-HIT reported in May that nearly 60,000 CT children were exposed to lead and 2,275 were lead-poisoned, but that the numbers were likely much higher because of significant gaps in state-mandated testing. In that report, based on 2013 data, a DPH spokesperson said that the agency was “working on increasing our outreach efforts in order to bolster” test numbers.
Unlike in Flint, Mich., whose residents were poisoned after a change in the city’s water source, most lead poisoning cases in Connecticut are linked to its housing stock, nearly one-quarter of which was built before World War II, when lead-based paint was commonly used. But lead-based paint was not outlawed nationally until 1978, which makes homes and apartment buildings built before then potentially hazardous.
Babies and young children are the most likely victims of lead poisoning, their risk of exposure occurring at the same time as their peak period of brain development.
As every parent knows, healthy babies and toddlers learn and explore through frequent hand-to-mouth activity. They can easily ingest the toxin through peeling lead paint chips, which taste sweet, and lead dust, which forms as doors and windows in older housing open and close, grinding down the paint.
Lead exposure can cause cognitive problems, including a measurable loss in IQ points – and speech and developmental delays, as well as hearing, behavioral issues and hyperactivity.
At Monday’s hearing, Tracy Hung, a DPH epidemiologist, said she is studying the link between lead poisoning in children and the money the state spends on special education and in handling children with behavioral issues.
Without screening, it may be hard to know if a child has been exposed to lead because its symptoms can be imperceptible and they are not uncommon: loss of appetite, fatigue, abdominal pain, constipation or diarrhea, irritability.
According to the DPH 2014 figures, of the 1,473 children who had newly confirmed toxic lead levels in 2014, more than one-third – 566 – lived in one of the state’s three largest, and poorest, cities: Bridgeport, New Haven or Hartford. The total number of children exposed to lead in 2014 was not immediately available.