Recent budget cuts could pose problem for local lead poisoning prevention

BY JENNY EARL | APRIL 16, 2012 6:30 AM

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County officials are preparing to receive less lead-poisoning prevention aid following recent budget cuts at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"We do outreach inspections when kids are lead-poisoned at a certain threshold, provide nutrition counseling — it's just kind of the minimum that we can do; we don't have the resources to do everything," said Kane Young, the executive officer for the Iowa Department of Public Health lead-poisoning prevention bureau.

The cuts will take $600,000 away from Iowa's Healthy Home and lead-prevention programs, forcing state health officials to cut state-funded programs in the department by 25 percent overall.

Johnson County, one of the state's 68 counties without a lead-poisoning prevention program, depends on the Iowa Department of Health to fight lead poisoning — a nervous-system-damaging condition caused by increased levels of lead in the body. Children in particular can suffer hearing, intelligence, and growth damage when their blood lead levels rise above 10 micrograms per deciliter, according to the Iowa Department of Public Health.

Doug Beardsley, the Johnson County public-health director, said the county doesn't have anyone who specializes in lead poisoning and relies on the state department for special cases.

"We don't have the staff to do the assessments [that the prevention programs do], but something we couldn't figure out, they would be able to send somebody over," he said.

However, the cuts will make it more difficult for county officials to use Public Health Department officials, he said.

Major lead-prevention programs are located in priority areas such as Linn County, Marshall County and Woodbury County. Because Johnson County doesn't have a high enough need, it hasn't received a specific grant for lead prevention.

"Johnson County is pretty favorable," Beardsley said. "Our housing stock is better, and we don't have the industries in which parents might get lead on their clothes — environment's a little safer than what it used to be."

Iowa as a whole faces particular lead risk, state epidemiologist Patricia Quinlisk said, because of having the highest proportion nationwide of houses containing lead — usually built before the stricter lead-paint laws enacted in 1979. These houses, she said, pose particular health risks for children.

"It can be quite serious, especially for children whose brains are still growing," she said. "Lead poisoning could be one of the biggest reasons why children's IQ and ability to learn might be affected because of exposure to lead — so obviously that's a big deal."

The prevalence of lead poisoning statewide among children under the age of 6 has increased from around 3 percent in 2005 to 7 percent in 2011, around four times the national average.

Quinlisk said lead-poisoning prevention programs provided by the state health department are essential in raising awareness abut lead poisoning, but state assistance, unfortunately, comes down to health budgets and how much money is available.

"[The Iowa Department of Public Health] does the best it can with what kind of resources it's given," she said.

Young said he hopes funding for these programs will be restored by 2013.

"I think it's important [to have lead-prevention programs] because of the involvement of the community and local outreach and awareness," he said. "It would have a pretty big impact if these cuts are permanent and future funding aren't restored.

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