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St. Louis makes strides in reducing lead poisoning in children

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 27, 2010 - St. Louis is making great strides in its attack on childhood lead poisoning, according to statistics released Friday by the city's Health Department.

The report said the level of lead poisoning in children reached an all-time low of 3.2 percent in 2009. That represents an 80 percent drop in the number of children with elevated lead levels since 2001. At that time, the rate was 16.2 percent, health officials said.

Pamela Walker, interim director of health for St. Louis, attributed the drop to "the collaborative work of the city's Health Department, the Building Division, the Community Development Administration, the Problem Properties Court and the community partners that make up the Lead Safe St. Louis Task Force."

She added that "lead poisoning can cause problems with the brain, kidneys, and bone marrow. This study shows that we're protecting St. Louis children from health complications."

The report showed that 83 percent of children tested had blood lead levels in the lowest range, compared to only 47 percent in 2002.

Also, 82 percent of lead inspection referrals in the city were proactive: Inspectors were called in to remove lead before the discovery of lead poisoning in a child. The Health Department said these "preventative precautions" show that the city's awareness and educational efforts are successful.

While the report said the decreasing prevalence of lead poisoning was "extremely encouraging," it added that certain areas of St. Louis still had high rates, and that "there is still much work to be done."

It noted that only 45 percent of city children who are at risk of lead poisoning are included in the surveillance database. The missing 55 percent, it said, could represent children tested but not reported to the city Health Department. But it's likely these children were not screened for lead in 2009.

"A screening rate of 45 percent in 2009, while much higher than most areas of the country, indicates that private providers are still failing to screen children for lead poisoning in the city of St. Louis," the report said. "Even though the prevalence of lead poisoning in the city of St. Louis appears to be on a continual decline, still not enough is known about whether the entire high-risk population is being reached."

The report says doctors may choose not to test children after 2 years old because they do not consider them to be at great risk. But the study points to findings that 8.1 percent of children retested in later years following a "negative" screening at age 2 were lead poisoned. The report encourages continued outreach and education of doctors to ensure the testing of all children through age 6.

Mayor Francis Slay announced a commitment to address lead problems in city neighborhoods early in his administration.

On Friday, Slay said, "This report is excellent news for the city of St. Louis. Eradicating childhood lead poisoning has been an important goal since I became mayor. I'm proud of the efforts of the Lead Safe St. Louis Task Force -- and am thankful that more children will not feel the dangerous effects of lead poisoning."

The day-to-day operation for controlling lead has been handled by Jeanine S. Arrighi, health services manager for children's environmental health.

Public health officials have praised the city's success, but they say the next biggest challenge is for the city to find enough resources to keep up the momentum to continue to treat lead-tainted homes.

Walker acknowledged that in spite of the progress, more can still be done to eradicate lead poisoning in children.

"All young patients should be screened for lead," she said. "It's the only way to accurately see our progress -- and to make sure that the Health Department can identify all cases of lead poisoning and develop and implement strategies to further prevent exposure to lead."

The Health Department has published the Childhood Lead Poisoning Report annually since 1996. For additional information about the report contact the Health Department at 314-657-1403.

Funding for health reporting is provided in part by the Missouri Foundation for Health, a philanthropic organization whose vision is to improve the health of the people in the communities it serves.

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.