Lead paint

Lead paint, as seen on this inner-city Waco building, tends to form an alligator-skin pattern as it deteriorates and then flakes off.

The Waco-McLennan County Public Health is rolling out a battle plan against childhood lead exposure, including house calls to help affected families minimize lead paint hazards.

The Waco City Council got a look at the multipronged plan Tuesday, less than two weeks after the Tribune-Herald reported on abnormally high number of children with elevated blood lead in parts of Waco.

In the North Waco ZIP code of 76707, 17 percent of the 381 children tested last year had lead levels above 5 micrograms per deciliter, compared to 2.6 percent statewide. Above that threshold, lead can pose a risk of brain and internal organ damage, according to federal health guidelines.

Health district director Sherry Williams said the agency is already reaching out to local pediatricians to encourage them to test more children for blood lead.

Elevated blood levels are reported to the Texas Department of State Health Services, but Williams is hoping to get pediatricians to agree to offer privacy waivers to patients so they sign up for a home visit from public health workers to investigate lead sources. She also is exploring the possibility of getting that data directly from the state.

“Currently we don’t receive that information,” Williams said. “We don’t even know who the families are.”

Williams said it’s possible that health district personnel could be certified in lead investigation to help families on request. In the short term, the health district can use its new Community Health Workers program to educate and consult with concerned families about lead. She said the health district also is talking to Baylor University officials about using nursing students to do community education on the issue.

Other measures the health district plans to pursue include:

  • Analyzing ZIP code data and using epidemiologists to track down the source of the problems. The main culprit is thought to be flaking lead paint, though old plumbing fixtures and service pipes will be studied as well.
  • Seeking grants for researching local lead hazards, as well as the Lead Hazard Reduction Demonstration Grant, a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development program that helps homeowners remediate lead issues.
  • Develop a model ordinance for local cities to adopt that would reduce lead hazards. That could include using city inspectors to ensure landlords and renovators follow measures to reduce lead exposure, she said.

Williams said the health district has been unable to find other cities in Texas that have such ordinances, but the research continues.

“We are starting to look across the country to see if there are ordinances out there that have requirements for rentals,” she said.

District 4 Councilman Dillon Meek, whose North Waco district includes the 76707 ZIP code, gave the health district a thumbs-up for responding forcefully to the lead issue after the recent newspaper report.

“I think the health district came up with some really great action items,” Meek said. “I’m really excited about the idea of using community health workers to address lead. . . . The good thing is that we’re having a conversation about it, and there are a lot of things on the table we can use to take steps to deal with it.”

Meek said he recently met with the Sanger Heights Neighborhood Association, which is in 76707, and heard concerns from residents about the lead issue.

“Some have lived here a long time and said, ‘We’ve known about this forever. It’s just part of living here,’ ” he said. “Others who were newer to the neighborhood said ‘We didn’t know about that.’ ”

Councilman John Kinnaird, who heads the health district board, agreed that the proposed steps are “robust,” and he is glad to see the lead issue come to public attention.

“I think the health district has put together a good, solid plan to inform citizens,” Kinnaird said. “It’s a public health issue, and the public health district is perfectly positioned to bring resources together in a proactive way.”

J.B. Smith is the the Tribune-Herald managing editor. A native of Sulphur Springs, he attended Southwestern University and joined the Tribune-Herald in 1997. He and his wife, Bethany, live in Waco and have two children.

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