Local health and community leaders are plotting an assault on high lead levels in McLennan County’s children by considering steps that include home inspections, a push for more lead testing by local physicians and attempts to secure better data from state health officials.
The call to action comes after revelations this spring that 5.7 percent of children under the age of 5 tested last year in McLennan County had elevated lead levels, more than twice the state norm of 2.6 percent.
Excessive lead levels in children can lead to brain and nervous system damage, hearing and speech problems and behavioral issues that include hyperactivity, juvenile delinquency and criminal behavior, said Kelly Craine, public information specialist for the Waco-McLennan County Health District.
Craine last week presented a report on the extent of the lead problem in McLennan County to the board of the health district. Waco City Councilman John Kinnaird, who serves as board chairman, requested the informational session that mirrored a briefing for council members on May 9.
“Lead is not safe at any level, but we do not yet have a way to provide an intervention for children being affected,” said Craine.
She said 62 percent of the housing in Waco was built before 1980, according to 2015 U.S. Census data. She added that in McLennan County “the suspected source of lead exposure is paint dust and chips from houses built before 1978, the year lead paint was banned.”
Locating specific homes contaminated with lead, compelling landlords to keep their properties free of flaking paint and pursuing grants to pay for lead remediation are options on the table, Craine said.
“I think we have a collective desire to discuss this issue,” Kinnaird said in a phone interview. “We have learned that our ability to collect and accurately parse data for lead can be challenging. We face roadblocks in simple getting the data from the state. That’s one of the things we need to closely work on in order to tackle the problem properly.”
Kinnaird said Waco is not plagued by lead contamination in plumbing or the water supply, adding, “We are not Flint, Michigan. We are not worried about pipes. We’re worried about older housing stock and lead paint before 1980. The Texas Department of State Health Services conducts testing, but does not always share findings with local health districts.”
Flint, Michigan, made headlines due to lead contamination attributed to poor water treatment after the Flint River became its water source in 2014.
Waco Mayor Kyle Deaver said dealing effectively with the lead problem in McLennan County will take time and money.
“We are looking at the possibility that Housing and Urban Development could provide funding for remediation, which is very expensive,” Deaver said. “But we need specifics about where remediation is needed. A shotgun approach will not work. I am satisfied we are making progress, but this is something that could take a long time, unfortunately.”
David Litke, director of the health district’s environmental division, said he and his staff have been assigned the task of coming up with a “lead-free property ordinance,” and is working closely with the city legal department.
“We really are starting from scratch here in Texas; there is hardly any information available on crafting such a measure,” he said by phone. “We do know that now is the time to do something about lead, and several units here at the health district are getting involved. We’re still filtering and sorting information and determining what we need to focus on. The city legal department is providing expertise on the legal background.”
Craine said she sent email messages and faxes to local physicians, spreading the word about efforts to address the lead problem.
She said the health district also is considering approaching neighborhood associations, homeowners’ groups and daycare centers.
“We know that to protect against further lead poisoning, we need to remove the lead, wherever it may be coming from, wherever a child spends most of his or her time,” Craine said. “There are homeowners who may not have the financial ability to pay for improvements, and there may be grants available for that.”
In ZIP codes in North Waco and the inner city, lead contamination averages were even higher than those for McLennan County as a whole. In 76707, 17 percent of the 403 children tested had elevated lead levels in their blood; in 76706, the average was 7.3 percent; in 76704, 6.3 percent; and in 76708, 5.8 percent, according to statistics provided by the Texas Department of State Health Services, which Craine cited.
“We as a community are facing several issues in our efforts to deal with the situation,” Craine said by phone. “We don’t know who or where these children are, other than somewhere within a certain ZIP code, which is a sizable area. We need something more specific, which allows us to drill down even further and say, ‘This is where we need to start looking.’”
Also, she said, “If we go to someone’s home or apartment and ask about testing for lead, we may be invited in or we may be asked to leave. There is nothing to compel a person to cooperate or take corrective action.”
She said that is a roadblock a city ordinance might address.
Chris Van Deusen, who oversees media relations for the Texas Department of State Health Services, said the state can provide funding for lead remediation in some cases, and has no problem sharing data with agencies such as local health district about high lead levels in children.
Bans on lead paint, pipes and gasoline have caused child and adult blood levels to fall significantly over the last three decades, with about 2.5 percent of test children nationwide and 2.6 percent in Texas now testing above the 5 microgram standard. But pockets of lead contamination persist, according to a recent special report by the Reuters news service .
Some neighborhoods in Baltimore, Cleveland and Philadelphia, for example, had 40 to 50 percent of children above the standard, the report says.
Craine said children should be tested for lead exposure at 12 and 24 months.
Elevated blood lead levels in pockets around Waco have been well-documented for years. Three years ago, a Baylor University professor approached the health district about working to lower the numbers. College students collected lead samples in soil and homes, with the aim of identifying houses with peeling paint.
That effort stalled when the professor, Spencer Williams, left Baylor to take a position with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Williams said other professors still have the data and are looking to publish it.