Report: One-Third of California’s High-Risk Kids Not Tested for Lead Poisoning

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Report: One-Third of California’s High-Risk Kids Not Tested for Lead Poisoning

SACRAMENTO, CA - Lead is a major threat to children’s health, and an EWG analysis of California’s most recent lead testing data shows the state has fallen far short of its responsibility to test children at the highest risk of exposure.

The new EWG report, based on U.S. Census data and Department of Public Health data from 2013, estimates that at least one-third of high-risk 1-and 2-year-olds were not tested for the highly potent neurotoxin that can cause permanent brain damage in children. The records from 2013 are the latest such statewide data released by California’s lead testing program.

State regulations mandate that all children enrolled in Medi-Cal or other public assistance programs should be tested at 12 months of age and again at 24 months to see if intervention is needed to protect against further exposure.

Lead poisoning can threaten children of any socioeconomic status, but those from lower-income families are more likely to live in older housing with lead paint or face exposure from other sources, the EWG report noted.

“There is no safe level of lead in a child’s body,” said Sonya Lunder, a senior analyst at EWG. “Testing is an essential tool to identify highly exposed children and neighborhoods where kids are at greater risk for lead exposure.”

Unfortunately, the state and nearly every one of its 58 counties have failed for decades to meet this basic health-protective requirement for many of California’s most vulnerable children.

Some California counties report alarmingly low rates of lead testing. The most startling findings from EWG’s analysis of the federal and state data are:

  • Statewide, an estimated 34 percent of 1- and 2-year-olds on Medi-Cal were not tested.
  • In 16 counties, it’s estimated that more than half of the young children on Medi-Cal were not tested. Mendocino County missed 87 percent; and El Dorado, Lake, Placer and Kings counties each missed at least 70 percent. The largest-population county in that category was Fresno, where 53 percent were not tested.
  • In 18 rural counties for which detailed data is lacking, an estimated 46 percent of 1- and 2-year-olds on Medi-Cal were not tested.
  • In 14 other counties – including more affluent counties, such as Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Marin and Sacramento – an estimated 30 to 48 percent of young children on Medi-Cal were not tested.

There is some good news about this public health problem. The California legislature just unanimously passed legislation that would bring major improvements to the long-struggling lead testing program.

The bill by California Assembly Member Bill Quirk, D- Hayward, requires the Department of Public Health to revise regulations for when doctors test children’s blood for lead exposure. In writing the new rules, the department must for the first time consider various factors – such as proximity to lead smelters or freeways, or drinking from lead-contaminated plumbing – that could expose a child to the potent neurotoxin.

“Far too many kids are harmed by lead and, for decades, the state has fallen woefully short of its responsibility to identify, test, and if needed, treat them,” said Susan Little, a senior advocate for EWG government affairs in California. “Fortunately, this public health debacle could be turned around if Governor Brown signs this legislation into law, and if his department steps up and strengthens lead testing requirements. Children’s brains are most vulnerable during their first two years of life, so it is incumbent on all of us – parents, physicians and our public health officials – to do all we can to protect toddlers from lead exposure.”

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The mission of the Environmental Working Group (EWG) is to use the power of public information to protect public health and the environment. EWG is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, founded in 1993 by Ken Cook and Richard Wiles.

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