Countywide : Test for Lead Levels in Children Criticized

Government-mandated testing of poor children for lead poisoning may be a waste of money in Orange County, according to a study by Orange County health experts published today in the Journal of the American Medical Assn.

The relative newness of Orange County's housing, only a tiny fraction of which was built before 1950, when lead-painted surfaces were common, was cited as the chief reason why "lead poisoning is not a major public health problem among Orange County children," stated the report by the Orange County Health Care Agency.

Last year, more than $129,000 in state money was spent to test for lead levels in the blood of about 5,700 children in Orange County.

"The money could be better spent at least in Orange County on other programs to improve the health of children such as increasing immunization rates, meeting nutritional needs and doing more frequent physical exams," said Dr. Gerald Wagner, a public health officer and co-author of the report.

But Wagner's conclusion was criticized as premature by Robert Schlag, acting chief of the childhood lead poisoning prevention program for the California Department of Health Services.

The fact that 15 children were reported with lead poisoning in Orange County last year, Schlag said, "gives me pause to accept that analysis."

The federal government requires testing of blood for lead levels in all children under 6 who are enrolled in Medi-Cal.

In 1991, California, responding to a lawsuit by advocates for children, applied the testing requirement to children in the state-funded Child Health and Disability Prevention program for low-income children.

Wagner stressed that other urbanized areas with a significant lead poisoning problem, such as Oakland, Sacramento and parts of Los Angeles County, might benefit from such blanket blood testing.

But in Orange County, he suggested that it would be just as effective and less expensive to perform blood tests only on those children who by their family history seem to be at risk for lead poisoning, such as Latino children whose parents use traditional home remedies containing lead.

This study's conclusion was based on the results of the blood testing of 5,115 children between 1 and 6 years old participating in the the federal Early and Periodic Screening, Diagnosis and Treatment services program, from March through December, 1992.

The agency reported that "clinical signs and symptoms of toxic effects due to lead were not found in any" of the children who were tested and 92% had blood levels of lead below 10 micrograms per deciliter. Above that level, there is a risk that lead poisoning will cause learning disabilities, says the Centers for Disease Control.

Of the 16 Orange County children with the highest concentrations of lead, all were Latino, including children in households where lead-containing Mexican folk remedies and unglazed cooking pots are used and where children are encouraged to eat dirt as a source of vitamins and minerals.

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