City works to get word out on dangers of lead poisoning

NASHUA – Dusty the dog does a nifty trick that teaches children how lead poisoning typically happens and corrects a fallacy that many adults hold.

Dusty is a stuffed husky that has become a hit at Greater Nashua health fairs and may make an appearance at a school near you when classes resume.

Dusty’s fur is coated with a substance invisible to the naked eye that shows up under a black light. Kids pet Dusty, and then the black light reveals the substance now covers their hands.

Kids being kids, give them a minute or two and the substance will soon be all over their faces and mouths.

Many adults incorrectly believe that children get lead poisoning by eating paint chips. Not true, experts say.

Instead, lead poisoning typically occurs when old lead paint forms a dust on floors or contaminates soil. Toddlers crawl on the floors, get lead-contaminated dust on their hands – and for toddlers, “everything is hand to mouth,” said Bobbie Bagley, chief public health nurse for the city.

“I love Dusty,” Bagley said.

Educating people is an important mission of the city’s public health team that tackles issues concerning lead contamination and poisoning. It’s not only children who are the targets of the educational efforts.

The lead team also is getting the word out to pediatricians about the need to screen children for lead poisoning. A survey of pediatricians taken a few years ago showed that “different people are doing different things,” Bagley said.

Bagley and her team-workers – public health nurses Betty Wendt and Sarah Wesley-Horan and outreach worker Luis Porres – are trying to get out the message that screening children at ages 1 and 2 is important for all pediatricians to do.

Lead poisoning can cause irreversible brain damage in children, impair mental functioning, retard mental and physical development and reduce attention span, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Poisoning from lead paint can also slow fetal development even at extremely low levels, according to the commission.

Nashua and other old mill towns see their share of children who test positive for elevated lead levels each year.

Currently, caseworkers are following 10 children with elevated lead levels, Wendt said.

“Summertime is always higher,” she said.

Open windows allow flaking exterior paint to blow inside, and chipping paint from windowsills is also exposed, Wendt said.

Plus, children playing outside may encounter lead-contaminated soil, she said. Once lead gets into soil, it stays there forever, she said.

“We have had elevated lead levels. We do follow a number of children at any one time to make sure they’re being evaluated and the numbers are going down,” said Dr. Paul Etkind, city epidemiologist.

From 2000-07 in Greater Nashua, 1,100 to 1,200 children ages 1-2 were screened for lead each year.

The lowest number to test positive during that period was seven. The highest was 20, with an average of about 10 or 11 each year, according to Etkind.

“All children should be screened between those ages,” Etkind said.

Policies for screening children vary state to state, he said.

Here in the city, children are screened based on recommendations from the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Those guidelines state that children should be screened:

If their family receives Medicaid or the children are in WIC or Head Start programs.

If they live in or frequently visit a home built before 1950.

If they live in or frequently visit a home built before 1978 that hasn’t been renovated.

If a sibling or playmate tested positive for lead poisoning.

If they live in a neighborhood with a large stock of houses built before 1950. In Nashua, that includes homes in the 03060 and 03064 ZIP codes, an area that includes French Hill and the Tree Streets.

Before 1950, nearly all residential house paint was lead-based. The use of lead-based paint decreased between 1950 and 1965, and from 1965 to 1978 lead-based paint was used only for the exterior of homes. In 1978, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission banned the residential use of lead-based paint in the United States.

Pediatricians and nurses “have to have a feel for the neighborhoods where they’re coming from” in deciding whether to test a child, Etkind said.

“I can honestly say one case is one too many. This is a completely preventable condition. Everybody is trying to get the number down to zero,” he said

The clinic at the city’s public health office, 18 Mulberry St., conducts screening for elevated lead levels each Friday from 8:30-10:30 a.m.

Children who test positive are referred to their doctors to confirm the test. Doctors prescribe treatments, but the lead team will offer to make a home visit to look for sources of the lead contamination, advise families on using nutrition to slow the absorption of lead into the blood and provide other information.

The city takes a “healthy-home,” holistic approach to such visits, providing information about lead, asbestos, mold, carbon monoxide, pests, asthma and other health concerns, Bagley said.

Also, the public health team tackles more issues than just lead, but the hours they can devote to lead have expanded because of a $3 million federal grant the city received late last year.

Specifically, Porres and Wesley-Horan received additional hours to devote to the lead program through the grant. Additional staff also was hired in the city’s Urban Programs Department to coordinate the testing and abatement of housing contaminated with lead paint.

The lead-abatement grant is renewable if the city proves it is meeting certain thresholds. The target is for the 150 units to be treated over the three-year life of the grant, which was awarded in December.