The Star-Ledger

Lead Poisoning In Kids Falls Sharply

But Jersey Health Experts Say Data Show Too Many Children Being Missed

The Star-Ledger — Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Star-Ledger Staff

The number of New Jersey children with very high levels of lead in their blood has dropped 83 percent in the past decade, and health officials said they must now push to reduce exposure to the toxic metal even lower.

At a gathering yesterday in Newark, public health workers welcomed the new figures, though they said many children at risk for lead poisoning still are not tested.

The number of children with lead levels above 20 micrograms per deciliter of blood last year was 780, according to state figures released at the gathering yesterday. A decade ago the figure was more than 4,700.

"We're making tremendous progress," said George Rhoads, associate dean of UMDNJ-School of Public Health. "But we also need to start concentrating on reducing lower levels. ... And we are still missing many children."

The gathering of lead experts, from nurses to doctors to local health officials, was sponsored by UMDNJ-New Jersey Medical School and the Gateway Northwest Maternal and Child Health Network. It was called "Lead Exposure: Paint and Beyond" and explored unexpected sources of lead, such as ethnic foods, imported candies and children's jewelry bought in vending machines.

Lead is malleable and cheap and is used in many products manufactured abroad, such as pottery. Some imported children's furniture contains lead paint. A product called Litargirio, often used by immigrants from the Dominican Republic to improve the skin, was found to be as much as 40 percent lead.

A New Jersey case that was discussed by lead experts last year involved a breast-fed baby and its parents, Indian immigrants, poisoned by Sindoor, a red, lead-based powder used by Indian women to adorn their foreheads. The couple said the powder was sold to them as a food coloring.

Ellen Phelps, a public health nurse for Sussex County, said she was stymied by one child's high blood lead level and searched through his playthings and environment. She eventually found the culprit when she tested an antique pewter cup the child drank from frequently.

The main source of lead poisoning, however, continues to be paint, particularly in older cities, where children are exposed to lead through old and deteriorating paint, dust and soil.

Contaminated housing stock is slowly being renovated or replaced, said Celeste Andriot Wood, an assistant commissioner at the state Department of Health and Senior Services. "Our children are eating more nutritious meals, which also reduces lead absorption," she added.

The number of children with lead levels above 10 – still a worrisome level – declined, too, though not as dramatically as the number of children with levels above 20. In fiscal year 2000, the number was 6,877. It declined almost 25 percent by fiscal year 2003, to 5,188. Figures for the entire decade were not available yesterday.

In fiscal year 2003, 172,000 children were tested for lead, according to state figures. By the time a child was 3, 74 percent had been tested at least once.

Clearly, some children with lead poisoning are being missed.

"We have to talk to the pediatricians and tell them, 'You really do need to do the screening,'" said Catherine Cuomo-Cecere, director of the Department of Health and Human Services for Newark. She also said Newark is reaching more children by performing lead tests at WIC centers, the supplemental food centers for women, infants and children, as well as in public health vans.

Newark, the city with the most lead poisoning cases, also has seen significant drops in children with high levels of lead – from 140 in 2002 to about 70 in 2004.

"Any decline is good," said Evelyn Liebman, program director of New Jersey Citizen Action. "But we think more can be done, particularly since every single case of lead poisoning is theoretically preventable."

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