Health experts are calling child lead exposure in Washington state a “silent epidemic” and say there is not enough money to fully address the problem and keep kids safe.
Washington’s Department of Health is testing the state’s elementary schools for lead in the water through a voluntary program. There are 3,000 elementary schools, but only enough funding to test 500 of them.
“Lead poisoning is definitely a problem. It’s a public health problem in Washington state. It’s something that we see here, and it is something that we have not adequately resourced,” said Lauren Jenks, with the WA State Department of Health. Jenks is the Director of Office of Environmental Public Health Sciences.
KIRO7’s Deedee Sun also found out there are even bigger problems when it comes to making sure our kids aren’t exposed to the hazards of lead.
Testing in Washington schools
The testing at schools happens early, around 6 a.m., before the school day starts. Lisa Christensen is one of the water samplers hired for the job.
She’s there to take the first draw of water out of sinks and water fountains – any fixture that kids might drink from.
“That’s when it's most likely to have highest lead concentration,” Christensen said.
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KIRO7 followed Christensen around Cascade View Elementary, in the Snoqualmie Valley School District. The district volunteered to get its elementary schools tested
“It's all about our kids and the children, and I have grandkids and I have children, and it's keeping them safe and the lead out of their drinking water,” said Bill Davis, the director of operations for Snoqualmie Valley schools. “Might as well do a test as a precaution because you never know if something gets introduced to a building,” Davis said.
The samples from every school across the state end up at the Public Health Lab in Shoreline.
The samples go into glass vials, and eventually go through a machine that spits out the numbers. Results so far?
“We find some lead in every school,” said Jenks. She says the state is prioritizing older schools right now that are more likely to have lead from older fixtures, as well as buildings with the youngest kids.
But the problem - there are 3,000 elementary schools in Washington, and only enough funding to test 500 of them.
“Do you see a problem there?” KIRO7’s Deedee Sun asked Jenks.
“Any time we’re having our children exposed to lead, that’s definitely a public health problem,” Jenks said.
“Lead in the blood always has a toxic impact,” Jenks said.
“There is no safe level,” Sun said.
“That’s correct,” Jenks said.
Lead is a specialty for doctor Catherine Karr, who works in pediatrics and environmental health at the University of Washington.
“Many people will call this a silent epidemic,” Karr said. “Behaviors like attention, staying focused. It’s also been associated with criminal behavior later in life, and also IQ and cognitive ability. Those are the primary effects associated with lead exposure,” Karr said.
We asked Karr if she thinks more needs to be done to keep kids safe from lead in Washington.
“It’s an ethical imperative for us to provide an environment that’s safe for children to grow up and thrive and reach their full potential,” Karr said. “So yes.”
The water crisis in Flint, Michigan and positive lead tests in Tacoma water led Gov. Jay Inslee to issue a directive in 2016 to address statewide concerns about lead.
That not only includes testing schools, but also testing kids, and cleaning up the places where children are more likely to be exposed - inside their own homes.
“Lead paint is our biggest hazard for lead poisoned kids,” Jenks said.
But the state Department of Health says its struggling even more to tackle those other issues.
KIRO7 dug into the data from the DOH that shows your risk for lead exposure. The state has a tool called the Washington Tracking Network that breaks down neighborhoods by census tract, and shows you the likelihood of housing with lead paint in that neighborhood, as well as likelihood of exposure.
Check your neighborhood here.
The darker the red, the higher the risk.
And there are neighborhoods from Everett, throughout Seattle, to Tacoma, that all rank 10 out of 10 for lead exposure risk.
Any pre-1978 home brings the possibility of lead paint. And the older the home, the higher the risk.
One of the highest risk neighborhoods is Seattle’s South Park.
Peeling, flaking paint, even paint chips in the grass were all easy to find.
It's impossible to tell by looking if the paint has lead so KIRO 7 bought an EPA recognized test kit.
The flaking door paint of the first home we happened to test was positive for lead paint.
We tried repeatedly to contact the property by knocking multiple times and by phone, but were not successful. It wasn’t immediately clear if anyone was still living in the home.
The DOH says rental units are more likely to be associated with disrepair and tenants are likely to be aware of risks.
King County Public Health says based on census data, there are more than 400,000 people who could be living in rental housing with lead-based paint.
The DOH says although we know what kind of homes are at the highest risk, usually the problem only gets addressed after a child gets sick and someone asks, where did the lead come from?
“That’s the public health approach. I think it does use our children as those proverbial canaries in a coal mine,” Jenks said.
Even more troubling, in Washington state, even the kids who are getting sick might not be getting tested.
As the national average of lead in children’s blood drops, the symptoms have become more subtle – which means the link to lead might slip by undetected.
“Not being able to pay attention, acting out, it may be related to learning problems. So it’s hard to connect as directly as something like a rash,” Karr said. She says something like ADHD would be fitting to symptoms caused by lead in a child’s blood.
Karr says of the kids in Washington who likely have elevated lead in their blood, only two percent are tested.
“So there are 98 percent of kids with an elevated blood-lead in Washington that we think are out there, and not having a blood test to determine that,” Karr said.
In fact, Washington has one of the lowest rates of kids getting tested for lead in the country. It means those kids probably aren’t getting the resources they need.
“That’s certainly likely. If we didn’t know - if we aren’t aware they have lead poisoning then we aren’t able to provide the good medical and follow up,” Jenks said.
So kids with high blood-lead levels might continue living in lead environments for years, or not get the proper nutrition they need to minimize the detrimental effects.
The DOH is working to improve.
It’s working with health care providers on screening for at-risk kids and getting them tested, encouraging cities to establish rental home inspection programs, and continuing to test school water for lead.
But it’s an ongoing struggle.
“Preventing lead exposure and finding kids are foundational public health services we have not been able to fund appropriately,” Jenks said.
The state legislature only funded the DOH with one-time money of $3 million over two years to do the lead-mitigation work. (That’s out of a $43.7 billion two-year state operating budget.)
“We still have a long way to go,” Jenks said.
The DOH says after the $3 million runs out, it will ask will ask for a continue of funds. But Jenks says there’s no guarantee they’ll get the money. The ask for a renewal of resources will happen in 2019.
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