The Pennsylvania Legislature is on the verge of taking two important steps to help reduce childhood lead poisoning by advancing a childhood lead testing bill in the Senate and including funding in the House-passed budget bill to help get the lead out of homes. Lead poisoning, regrettably, is still a critical public health crisis in Pennsylvania. Nearly 8,000 children are poisoned every year, but the actual number is likely much higher since less than one-third of children under age 6 have their blood lead level tested.
Lead paint used in housing built before 1978, when the use of lead paint was banned, is the primary source of lead exposure by young children ingesting paint chips and dust. Pennsylvania ranks fifth in the nation for old housing stock, with 70% of residential units built before 1980. The rate of children who test positive is the same in rural, suburban and urban areas of the state. Many parents are unaware this hazard is lurking in their dwelling place. Even if they live in a newer residence, children can be exposed in other structures where they spend repeated time in the care of others.
Lead is especially damaging to children developing in utero and in the first six years of life. Its negative, irreversible effects on rapidly developing bodies include damage to the nervous system and brain, which causes learning difficulties, slowed growth and development, hearing and speech problems, and decreased attention span. Severity of symptoms can depend on a child’s blood lead level, but there is no safe level of lead exposure in children.
There is another effect of lead exposure that is of keen concern to the law enforcement community. That is a lack of impulse control and other behavior problems, which can lead to an increased risk for future juvenile and adult crime.
A recent report from the anti-crime organization Fight Crime: Invest in Kids describes the relationship between childhood lead poisoning and increased likelihood of being involved in the justice system later in life. One longitudinal study on the effects of lead exposure in the first six years of life found that exposure was predictive of future juvenile delinquency and arrests between the ages of 18 and 33. Another long-term study found children who were exposed to lead in early childhood committed, on average, nearly five more delinquent acts as adolescents than their peers who were not exposed to lead.
The Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association is pleased to be among more than 60 organizations across the state that comprise the Pennsylvania Lead-Free Promise Project, a coalition working to ensure that all children are tested for lead exposure at least once by age 2 and to get the lead out of homes so no more children are poisoned. The coalition applauded the General Assembly when it passed a bill with broad bipartisan support that was enacted into law last year (Act 150 of 2022) that encourages the testing of all children and pregnant women for lead. Unfortunately, a last-minute amendment in the House removed the requirement that all children be tested by age 2.
This year Sen. Lisa Baker introduced SB 514, which amends the just-enacted law to reinsert the requirement for blood lead test by 2 years of age so that prompt diagnosis and treatment, as well as the prevention of harm, are possible. The bill includes a specific parental testing opt-out provision to mollify mandate concerns. The Senate Health and Human Services Committee recently passed the bill unanimously, and it now awaits full Senate consideration.
To help homeowners and landlords remove lead paint from their dwelling places, recent House-passed budget bill HB 611 contains a modest $2 million for the state Department of Health to administer a grant program for this purpose. Inclusion of this first-time state funding in the final state budget would be an important step in combatting the 100% preventable problem of childhood lead poisoning.
Identifying children at risk for lead poisoning and removing the lead from home environments are two of the smartest investments we can make to keep our children healthy and on the right path for years to come.
Scott L. Bohn is executive director of the Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association.