County health center aims at increasing lead testing

Wednesday, March 26, 2003

For young children, getting lead poisoning is as easy as getting their hands dirty or coming into contact with flaking paint from a windowsill.

Still, area health officials say only 4 percent of Cape Girardeau County's children are tested for lead.

"It's not mandatory testing for children," said Jane Wernsman, a registered nurse and assistant director of the Cape Girardeau County Public Health Center. "But it is very dangerous."

That's why the center hopes to increase the number of children who get checked with Saturday's first communitywide free lead screening for children ages 1 to 6.

The screening is part of Health and Safety Day, sponsored by the Cape Girardeau police and fire departments, as well as the health center. Screening is free and will be offered at Fire Station No. 1 at 1 South Sprigg Street and Fire Station No. 2 at 378 South Mount Auburn Road near Westfield Shoppingtown West Park and Doctors' Park.

Wernsman said the test will only require a finger prick to get blood. Results will be available in about two weeks and will be mailed to parents, Wernsman said.

Of those children in Cape Girardeau County who are tested, 4 percent have an elevated reading, Wernsman said. Elevated lead levels can cause learning disabilities, lower IQ scores and other physical or behavioral problems.

Severe cases can lead to coma or even death. More common problems are irritability, abdominal and muscle pain, anemia, diarrhea and constipation.

Sometimes, though, the effects of lead poisoning aren't visible.

"It's important to know that children can be lead poisoned without showing any symptoms," Wernsman said. "The only way to know for sure is to have a blood-lead test."

The Public Health Center has provided lead testing for years, but the Missouri Department of Health and Human Services is pushing for a broader approach. The money to provide the community screening comes from the state health department's maternal child health grant. Each test will cost about $10.

Wernsman said those children who have a lead level high enough to be of concern -- 10 to 19 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood -- will be referred to their private physician for further evaluation. Wernsman said there are ways to treat lead poisoning, including medication.

According to the state health department, lead dust is the primary source of lead poisoning today. Lead from paint, soil and occupational and industrial sources contaminates the dust.

Through the 1940s, paint with up to 50 percent of lead additives was in widespread use. According to Wernsman, 24 percent of Cape Girardeau County houses were built before 1950.

Susan Thomas, a blood-lead expert with the state Department of Health, said it is estimated that 1 million children in the United States have elevated blood-lead levels. According to 2001 Missouri blood-lead testing data, nearly 4,000 children under the age of 6 in the state were identified as having elevated levels.

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