On Your Health

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What Oklahoma Families Need to Know About Lead Poisoning

The protracted water crisis in Flint, Mich., has parents across the country asking if their children also could fall victim to lead poisoning from the water coming out of their taps.

How does lead exposure happen?

Lead exposure occurs primarily from drinking water out of faucets with lead pipes. However, parents can take proactive measures to prevent lead poisoning, said Susan Quigley, program manager for the Oklahoma Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program. For instance, many water filters are certified to remove lead. Several filter options are available that can be attached to faucets or fitted to pipes under the sink.

Older homes may still have lead pipes but replacing those pipes costs thousands and, unfortunately, replacing pipes at home doesn’t solve the issue of lead pipes that still may be in use in some communities’ aging infrastructure.

In addition, water isn’t the only source where children can be exposed to lead. Lead can be found in things we have contact with every day such as soil. Small children, in particular, can come in contact with lead in certain toys and jewelry. Also, parents who work with lead-containing products such as car battery recycling, can transfer dust from their clothes onto their children.

Lead is especially harmful to children

Children age 6 and younger are particularly susceptible to lead poisoning, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Small children are more likely to put their hands on objects and then put their hands in their mouths. But their bodies are growing quickly, so it’s important to stay healthy during these first years of life.

All children should be tested for lead levels at ages 1 and 2, Quigley said. “Medicaid requires lead testing, but children with private insurance aren’t always tested,” she said. The Oklahoma Department of Health analyzes all the results – about 45,000 tests a year for age 6 and younger. “Because we’re not getting all the children tested, it’s harder to find all the patterns in all the areas,” Quigley said. “We’d really like to see an increase in testing.”

Risk factors for lead exposure

While anyone can suffer from lead exposure, several risk factors are of concern, Quigley said.

  • Residents of older homes. Homes built before 1978 are at risk of containing lead-based paint. Homes built before 1950 are at an even higher risk, she said, because the paint used before then had an even higher concentration of lead.
  • Those in poverty. Quigley said those groups are at risk because they are more likely to live in homes that are older and not inspected. However, families who live in public housing are usually protected because lead inspections are required for those buildings.
  • Minorities and immigrants. These populations are more likely to live in poverty. Also, some people living in America have emigrated from other countries that have problems with lead contamination.

Oklahoma areas with highest risk of lead exposure

Health officials are always looking to identify trends and patterns that can then be used to improve health outcomes for Oklahomans. The Oklahoma Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program has identified 21 ZIP codes where residents have a higher chance of lead exposure than in other areas of the state.

  • Garfield County: 73701
  • Hughes County: 74848
  • Jackson County: 73521
  • Kay County: 74631
  • Muskogee County: 74401 and 74403
  • Oklahoma County: 73106, 73107, 73108, 73109, 73111, 73117, 73119 and 73129
  • Okmulgee County: 74447
  • Ottawa County: 74354
  • Tulsa County: 74104, 74106, 74110, 74115 and 74127

Health officials identify the high-risk ZIP codes by looking at several data points: the proportion of houses built before 1950, the percentage of children living in poverty, the proportion of the population that is minority, and the rate of reported elevated blood lead levels.

But this data could be updated soon with new census data, Quigley said. She also points out the rules about lead safety have also changed. In the past, children with blood lead levels of at least 10 micrograms per deciliter were identified as having a “level of concern.” Today, health professionals are taking action for levels as low as five micrograms. Even still, any lead exposure is dangerous. “Now we know there’s not a safe level,” Quigley said.

Lead Poisoning Q&A

Q: What do I do if I am concerned my child could have lead poisoning?

Talk to your child’s health care provider. A blood test is the only way to diagnose lead poisoning.
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Q: What do I do if I live in a house built before 1978?

Test the paint and dust in the home for lead. Make sure children and pregnant women are not in the home while renovation is happening.

Q: What do I do if I suspect lead in my home?

Home lead test kits are available at home hardware stores. Test strips change color if lead is present.

Q: What do I do if I have lead paint?

Removing lead paint and renovating a home with lead paint can be dangerous. The Oklahoma Department of Health recommends residents use The Lead-safe Certified Guide to Renovate Right, a guide produced by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Q: What if my lead paint has been painted over several times since the home was originally built?

There are safe ways to remove lead paint, but paint that is buried under layers of newer paint is probably not harmful, as long as it’s not peeling, flaking or cracking. One area of particular concern is doors and windows, where paint can flake off from years of opening and closing. If you scrape off lead paint yourself, lead dust is likely to get into the air and then move through a home’s air system. Professional services providers can remove lead paint.

Q: What else can I do to protect my children from lead?

Quigley recommends parents follow the product recalls through the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which puts out recall notices for all types of products. You can subscribe to receive email alerts of product recalls.

Q: What do I do if I have more questions?

Call the Oklahoma Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program at the Oklahoma Department of Health. The number is 405-271-6617.

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