The Reuters’ investigative report published in June 2016, Unsafe at Any Level, reveals that millions of American children are not getting tested for lead exposure in their formative early years.
The heartbreaking story of a little boy with lead poisoning is shared in the report. At a check-up, when Joshua was a year old, his pediatrician saw no need to test him for lead exposure because he couldn’t walk yet.
Over the next year, Jennifer Sekerak – Joshua’s mother – saw a dramatic change in his behavior and health. He began to refuse food, to throw intense screaming fits, and to eat dirt. He was even diagnosed with severe anemia, a symptom of lead poisoning, but was never tested.
At Joshua’s 2-year check-up, his new pediatrician tested his blood lead level. It was 19 micrograms/deciliter (mcg/dcl), nearly four times the CDC’s 5 mcg/dcl reference value, at which point follow up is suggested.
According to the CDC, the first step in addressing an elevated blood lead level is to find and remove the source of exposure; the longer a child is exposed, the more damaging and lasting the effects can be. Had Joshua been tested at age 1, and the source of exposure removed, it is possible that he could have been spared many of the effects that are now his reality.
The Sekerak family is not alone in their plight. Many children across the country are falling through the cracks.
Opinions vary on at what age to stop testing for lead exposure, but most everyone agrees that children should be tested at ages 1 and 2 ― two tests by 2 years old, or “2 by 2.” Though testing is required for all Medicaid-enrolled children at ages 1 and 2 (as well for others considered at risk), the Reuters report revealed that testing rates are low ― with one state, South Carolina, testing as little as 5 percent of this population. Further, the report cites examples of cities like Cleveland where elevated blood lead levels are prevalent but testing rates are dismal.
Lead is one of the most prevalent environmental health risks for children, with lifelong repercussions. But symptoms are usually not apparent or can mimic other everyday ailments like headache and flu. A blood test is the only way to diagnose lead exposure; followed by actions to mitigate the effects. The source of lead exposure should be quickly identified and the child should be isolated from it.
Flint’s drinking water crisis… new revelations of lead in drinking water in New York, Kansas and Oregon… lead paint in housing all over the Northeast. The list goes on and on. Lead exposure has been linked to children’s blankets and toys. One family recently connected their child’s lead poisoning with an old milk bottle crate where their toys are kept.
The truth is you never know where insidious lead will appear. Unfortunately, policy and regulation, as we have learned from the Reuters’ report, have had limited success. As a result, one of the key pieces to fighting this silent poison is to create more awareness in parents ― empowering them to understand where lead lurks in the environment and ask to get their children tested without depending on someone to tell them they’re at risk.
No parent wants what has happened to Joshua Sekerak to happen to his or her own child. Now 4 years old, Joshua’s speech is behind his peers, he wears diapers, and he drinks out of a baby bottle. The effects of lead poisoning will follow him for the rest of his life.
Joshua’s mother shared that she wishes she had tested him earlier and doesn’t know with whom she should be angry. The landlord? The doctors? Herself?
As parents, we don’t want to find ourselves in that position. Be aware of the risks. Be proactive. Get your kids tested at 1 and 2 years old, no matter what.
2 by 2.