Lead testing of Ohio children plummets during pandemic

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The number of Ohio children tested for lead exposure in the first five months of 2020 plummeted compared to the same time frame the year before, according to the CDC.

The drop-off is part of a larger pattern. New research from the CDC found about a 34% decrease nationally in the number of children tested for lead exposure between January and May 2020 than the same period in 2019.

Less testing means fewer cases are detected. The CDC estimates some 10,000 children subjected to lead poisoning went undiagnosed during the time frame.

Ohio was one of 34 states the federal agency used to gather its testing data on lead, a brain damaging toxin associated with neurological and behavioral disorders.

Comparing 2020 testing levels against 2019’s, researchers found about 51% fewer Ohio children were tested in May; about 57% fewer children were tested in April; and about 29% fewer children were tested in March.

There’s no safe level of lead in children, only a threshold at which the CDC recommends clinical and public health intervention.

Higher levels of lead can cause neurologic problems (seizures, comas, etc.), organ failure or death. Lower, but still elevated levels can cause permanent neurologic damage, behavioral disorders and cognitive impairment.

Most childhood lead exposure comes from lead-based paint used in pre-1978 housing (when lead paint was banned), lead-contaminated soil, lead-containing pollutants from industrial sources, and water from old lead pipes and fixtures.

The prevalence of Ohio children with elevated blood lead levels has steadily declined since 1999, according to the state health department. Slightly more than 2% of the roughly 160,000 children screened per year for lead exposure passed the CDC’s threshold.

However, this is just a “snapshot of the problem” according to Groundwork Ohio, a nonpartisan advocacy group for childhood development, which cites research that fewer than 40% of children who are most at risk of lead poisoning (those living at or below 200% of the federal poverty line) were even tested.

In Ohio, Black children are disproportionately affected by lead poisoning, according to research from Case Western Reserve University’s Center on Urban Poverty and Community Development, often leading to a series of other disadvantages growing up in both educational settings and the criminal justice system.

The decreased lead testing mirrors trends noted in well-child visits and screenings and vaccination coverage, according to the CDC.

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