Number of lead poisoning cases up Improved screening, reporting cited as reason for increase.

May 23, 1991|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Evening Sun Staff

The number of Maryland children identified with lead poisoning more than doubled last year, a jump that state officials attribute to better reporting and increased screening for what health experts say is the leading environmental hazard for American children.

A preliminary analysis of blood test results reported to the Maryland Department of the Environment last year by state and private laboratories showed there were 1,445 lead-poisoned children statewide, up from 544 children identified in 1989.

Four-fifths of the poisoned children lived in Baltimore, where the number more than doubled from 503 in 1989 to 1,148 last year. Only 97 poisoned children were identified in the rest of the state, but that number also more than doubled from 41 in 1989.

Another 200 poisoned children are from unknown jurisdictions within the state. Missing and inaccurate reporting information has made it impossible for the state to locate them.

Baltimore County had the third highest number of lead-poisoned children, 27, on the state childhood lead registry, which is compiled from test results reported to the state. Prince George's County, with 28 cases, had the second largest number.

Patricia McLaine, coordinator of lead poisoning prevention for the state environmental agency, said recently that there has been a rise in screening and reporting of lead poisoning cases. She attributed that to increased publicity about lead poisoning and to a 1990 law requiring that all screening test results be reported to the state.

"I think the message is getting through," she said. "I think parents are more concerned, and the doctors are doing more screening tests."

Excessive exposure to lead can cause hyperactivity, mental retardation and even death in high enough doses. Ingesting even low levels of lead can lead to brain damage and learning and behavioral problems in young children.

The biggest source of lead exposure for young children is dust they swallow from deteriorating lead-based paint in or on their homes. But even well-maintained older homes may pose a hazard for children if renovations or even repainting is done without precautions against stirring up lead-paint dust.

The city has about 200,000 houses that were built before 1950 when lead paint was widely used. Another 300,000 pre-1950 homes are in the rest of the state. Baltimore banned the use of lead paint in 1951.

Other lesser sources of lead include lead dust in topsoil, eating food contained in lead-soldered cans, and drinking water passing through lead pipes or plumbing fixtures connected with lead solder.

The number of lead-screening tests reported to the state last year more than tripled, from 24,810 in 1989 to 79,347, McLaine said.

Many children were screened more than once because they are often initially checked for elevated lead levels in their blood using a free erythrocyte protoporphyrin, or FEP, test. That test, which involves drawing a small amount of blood from a child's finger, must be confirmed by a second blood test.

The state's childhood lead registry does not distinguish between children who were first diagnosed with lead poisoning last year and those youngsters who may have been poisoned in prior years but continued to have their blood tested. Even with medical treatment, it can take months -- or years in some cases -- to reduce a seriously poisoned child's bloodstream lead levels.

Baltimore health officials, for instance, said that they identified only 460 new lead-poisoning cases in the fiscal year ending last June 30, a 5 percent increase over the previous year. The Baltimore Health Department has an active caseload of about 1,200 poisoning cases, according to Amy Spanier, lead-poisoning prevention coordinator.

Baltimore County environmental officialssaid that they had identified 23 new cases since last June, less than half the 27 cases attributed to the county by the state lead registry. But those 23 cases are a big increase from the five or six usually seen every year, according to Ian Forrest, chief of regional

community services for the county's Department of Environmental Protection and Resource Management.

The current federal standard for lead poisoning is 25 micrograms of the metal per deciliter of blood. But based on recent research findings of harmful health effects at far lower exposure levels, the federal Centers for Disease Control is considering reducing the standard by as much as 60 percent.

LEAD POISONING CASES

.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..1989 .. .. .1990

Baltimore City .. .. .. .. 503 .. .. 1,148

Anne Arundel Co. .. .. .. .. 0 .. .. .. .3

Baltimore Co. .. .. .. .. .. 9 .. .. .. 27

Calvert County .. .. .. .. . 1 .. .. .. .1

Caroline Co. .. .. .. .. .. .3 .. .. .. .1

Carroll Co . . . .. .. .. .. 1 . .. .. . 3

Cecil Co. .. .. .. .. .. .. .0 .. .. .. .2

Charles Co. .. .. .. .. .. . 0 .. .. .. .0

Dorchester Co. .. .. .. .. . 0 .. .. .. .0

Frederick Co. .. .. .. .. .. 0 .. .. .. .3

Garrett Co. .. .. .. .. .. . 0 .. .. .. .0

Harford Co. .. .. .. .. .. . 2 .. .. .. .1

Howard Co. .. .. .. .. .. . .0 .. .. .. .2

Kent Co. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..1 .. .. .. .2

Montgomery Co. .. .. .. .. ..2 .. .. .. .8

XTC Prince George's Co. .. .. . 18 .. .. .. 28

Queen Anne's Co. .. .. .. . .0 .. .. .. .1

St. Mary's Co. .. .. .. .. . 0 .. .. .. .0

Somerset Co. .. .. ... .. . .0 .. .. .. ..0

Talbot Co. .. .. .. .. .. .. 0 .. .. .. .0

Washington Co. .. .. .. .. . 0 .. .. .. .7

Wicomico Co. .. .. .. .. .. .4 .. .. .. .6

Worcester Co. .. ... .. .. ..0 .. .. .. .1

Total counties .. .. .. .. .41 .. .. .. 97

Unknown location .. .. .. .N/A .. .. . 200

Total state .. .. .. .. .. 544 .. .. 1,445

*Source: Maryland Department of Environment

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