Nearly 1,400 new cases of lead-poisoned children under age 6 were reported in Connecticut in 2015, a slight drop from the year before, but more children showed higher levels of poisoning.
A child whose blood test shows 5 micrograms of lead per deciliter or higher is considered poisoned. The 2015 numbers show 98 new cases of children with lead levels of 20 micrograms or higher, four times the threshold number and a 32 percent jump from 2014.
“We cannot, with any certainty, explain why this is the case,” said Krista M. Veneziano, coordinator of the Connecticut Department of Public Health’s (DPH’s) Lead, Radon, and Healthy Homes Program, about the disproportionately larger numbers of higher toxicity.
Exposure to lead can damage cognitive ability, including a measurable and irreversible loss in IQ points. It can also be linked to speech and developmental delays, hyperactivity, hearing loss and behavioral problems, though these may not show up until years later.
Babies and toddlers are the most likely victims of lead paint poisoning and are especially vulnerable to its effects during these vital developmental years. With their hand-to-mouth exploring, they are more liable to ingest flaking paint chips, which taste sweet, or leaded paint dust, created by doors and windows in older housing opening and shutting, grinding down the paint. Soil near the base of older, dilapidated buildings is also frequently contaminated.
These numbers from the DPH are just an estimate because of under-testing. Although state law requires all children to be tested twice, a year apart, before they turn 3, only 55 percent of 1- and 2-year-olds had both screenings in 2015.
Connecticut is not alone in deficient screening and, in fact, does better than many states. A national study of 1- to 5-year-olds published May 2 in Pediatrics, an American Academy of Pediatrics journal, concluded that “undertesting of blood lead levels by pediatric care providers appears to be endemic in many states.”
The state started testing children for lead poisoning in 2002. In more recent years, as knowledge of the continuing impact of the neurotoxin and of the importance of testing have widened, children with elevated blood lead levels have been reported in nearly every town and city.
But the highest numbers of poisoned children are always in the four largest, poorer and minority-dominant cities -- Bridgeport, New Haven, Hartford, and Waterbury. Hence, black children under 6 were twice as likely to be lead poisoned as white or Asian children in 2015, and Hispanic children were 1.6 times as likely to be poisoned as non-Hispanic children.
More than 75,000 children under 6 were screened in 2015, with New Haven reporting 196 new cases of children with lead levels at or greater than 5 micrograms. Waterbury reported 186 cases; Bridgeport, 179; and Hartford, 113.
Combined, children in these cities comprise close to half of all the new cases of poisonings in 2015.
Dr. Patricia Garcia, co-director of the Regional Lead Treatment Clinic at Connecticut Children’s Primary Care Center in Hartford, said the clinic’s current caseload is 179 children, who generally come from the from the top half of the state. Lead patients from Fairfield and New Haven counties are more likely to seek treatment at the lead clinic at Yale New Haven Children’s Hospital.
And although there are a fair number of children from the city, Garcia said, “If you live in Connecticut, you are at risk for lead.
“Our housing stock is old, we’re from New England, it’s part of our heritage. … [This] means every child is at risk, and it doesn’t matter what socioeconomic class you come from.”
Since 2014, when Flint, Michigan changed its water source and poisoned thousands of its residents, awareness has grown nationwide that lead remains an unresolved problem.
Connecticut’s lead problems, as in most New England states, are linked more to lead paint, which wasn’t banned nationally until 1978. Nearly 60 percent of the state’s housing stock was built before 1970, and percentages in the cities can be higher.
More than 75 percent of New Haven, Bridgeport and Hartford’s housing stock is pre-1960, with the three cities generally swapping positions at the top of the state’s lead-plagued municipalities.
DPH numbers show that among 135 dwelling units investigated and reported in 2015, 84 percent had lead-based paint hazards, 59 percent had a lead dust hazard, and 34 percent showed lead in the surrounding soil.
The lead numbers will be fleshed out when the DPH issues its full 2015 lead surveillance report in the next few months.
The total number of Connecticut children 6 and under with lead poisoning in 2015 was 2,156, which includes children still being treated from previous years. This is about 130 fewer than in 2014.
This story was reported under a partnership with the Connecticut Health I-Team (C-hit.org).