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Local health officials dispute new blood lead level study in Nebraska Children

Posted at 6:28 PM, Sep 29, 2021

OMAHA, Neb. (KMTV) — JAMA Pediatrics published a new study that could concern Nebraskans and Iowans. Medical researchers tested around 1.1 million children across the country for blood lead levels.

Nebraska came back with the highest rate - showing 83 percent of children with lead in their bloodstream.

Iowa was fourth at 76 percent, much higher than the national average and around four times as high as Florida, which had the lowest rate at 17 percent.

However, local health experts say the report is misleading because of the measurements they used.

"We never want to see lead in anyone's body or any child's body, but they looked at detectable versus elevated blood lead levels,” DCHS acting lead program supervisor Naudia McCracken said. “Which was the five micrograms per deciliter we look at here."

According to the CDC, lead exposure can cause a series of problems, like damage to the brain and nervous system, that can lead to learning and behavior problems, slowed growth and development, and hearing and speech problems.

At the elevated blood level of five micrograms per deciliter (5ug/dl), which is considered at risk, the study had six percent of Nebraska children above that level from 2018-2020. Still the highest in the country, compared to a 1.9 percent national average.

However, Douglas County says less than one percent of the 17,291 children tested in 2020 were above that threshold.

Children's Hospital had only 1.5 percent of children above that level of the 10,457 they tested in 2020.

The main reason both say there is such a large disparity in the numbers is because the study only went through Quest Diagnostics.

DCHD says only one local clinic uses that lab for tests.

That clinic is located in the Omaha lead superfund site, the largest superfund site in the country.

The 27-square mile site was designated a harmful lead area by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1999 due to high particle levels of lead being dispersed into the soil from the ASARCO Manufacturing Plant for more than 125 years.

"In terms of the superfund site, we don't see as many cases due to soil contamination that was seen back in the early 2000's," McCracken said.

However, that area is still at higher risk of lead poisoning, and another lead source is still an issue - lead-based paint in older homes in the area.

"About 96 percent of the housing was built before 1978, which is when lead was banned for use in residential paint," McCracken said.

Other key factors are lead-based pipes, lead-based dust, and international spices.

The residential area is primarily low income, making it difficult to move to another home. In many cases, the people who live in these homes are tenants. DCHD says it is illegal for landlords to not update the homes.

While local officials say the numbers aren't as high as the study suggests, DCHD says it is extremely important for children to get tested so they can catch it early on before symptoms arise.

With the pandemic still on the forefront, getting tested is as important as ever.

"COVID has taken over everything. Children have stayed at home a lot the last year, so they've been in this poor housing where lead-based paint is all over the place, especially in the poorer communities,” McCracken said. “So, I'm grateful that we have this opportunity to talk about it."

Children's Hospital now tests all children at 12 months. Before they only tested those perceived to be at risk.

DCHD says many health organizations continue to only test those who are at risk, which skews the numbers from the study as well.

Both the City of Omaha and Douglas County Health Department can help you if you are exposed to lead at your home, or think you might be, free of charge.

For more information on the city’s end, click here.

For more information on DCHD’s end, click here.