A stricter lead exposure standard for young children is expected to cause a surge in the number of lead cases that require a public health intervention. The tougher federal standard acknowledges new research showing that even extremely low levels of lead can reduce a child's IQ, damage their motor skills and cause behavioral problems.
Local public health officials don't dispute the need for a lower lead standard, but they think it will be difficult to reach all of the children affected by the new guidelines. While science may support more intervention on lead, federal money for the effort is dwindling. Congress recently cut nearly the entire $30 million lead prevention budget from the agency that tracks lead cases in the United States.
The budget cuts could have consequences for children because lead testing keeps them from serious harm.
Among those who have been protected is four-month-old Seeley Bierbrauer. He hasn't been tested for lead yet — that will likely happen at his six-month or one-year doctor's visit — but his northeast Minneapolis home has. His parents, Dieter and Anna Bierbrauer, suspected they had a lead problem.
"He's already putting a lot of stuff in his mouth, so before he's really crawling around on the ground and putting things in his mouth is when I would like to have things taken care of," his mother said.
The Bierbrauer's are taking sensible measures to ensure their child is protected before it's too late. Lead problems in a home typically are addressed after a child has tested positive for elevated levels of lead. By that point, the child may have already suffered some developmental damage which may not be reversible.
Only children who have been poisoned by an excessive amount of lead undergo a medical process called chelation to remove the heavy metal from their bloodstreams. Most children with elevated lead levels return to a normal range within a few months, if their lead source is identified and removed from their environment.
During a recent test of their home, inspector Lao Moua immediately spotted a problem.
"Just the way the paint is cracking it seems to be positive to lead," said Moua, who examined the Bierbrauer's small garage.
Moua is risk assessor at the Sustainable Resources Center in Minneapolis, a non-profit group that works with low-income families to clean and repair homes that are contaminated with lead.
During his inspection, he pressed a lead-detecting scanner firmly against the wood siding. The garage was built in the early 1900s making it likely that at some point lead paint was used on this building.
"So far everything's positive," Moua said.
A positive reading means lead is present.
Even on a garage, lead can be a danger to young kids. Ingesting lead paint chips is a common source of lead exposure for crawling infants and toddlers.
Even extremely low levels of lead can reduce a child's IQ, damage their motor skills and cause behavioral problems.
A tell-tale sign of lead could be found in a section of peeling paint near the foundation of the Bierbrauer's garage.
"This is what's flaking into the soil," said Joe Houseman, director of the Lead Hazard Control program at the Sustainable Resources Center. "Kids play in garages and there's little areas down here that there are perfect little chips to peel off of. That is what could cause an elevated blood level in a kid."
Inspectors found more lead paint on the front porch of the Bierbrauer's house. But inside, many of the walls and ceilings in the adjoining rooms don't have lead. That means there's a good chance that the cost of repairing the house will fall within the $8,000 maximum budget for the project.
The work will be paid for through a lead abatement grant Hennepin Count obtained from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The funds will allow the clean-up crew to replace lead-coated items that are exposed to a lot of friction, such as windows and doors. Other surfaces that don't get as much wear will get a new coat of paint to seal in the lead.
Workers will also thoroughly clean the Bierbrauer's to remove any lead dust that has settled into furniture or carpets.
Houseman said HUD money designated for lead removal appears secure for the moment. But he said the recent elimination of nearly $30 million in lead-prevention funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention couldn't come at a worse time given the agency's decision to adopt a tougher lead standard.
"We're going to have a lot more kids with elevated blood levels and a lot less money to help try to find them," he said.
CDC grants help the Minnesota Department of Health identify the neighborhoods where children live in homes with the highest lead levels. Houseman said if that surveillance data goes away, his group won't know where to target its efforts.
The CDC's new lead standard is expected to quadruple Minnesota's population of children with elevated lead levels.
Dan Symonik, Environmental Impacts Analysis Unit supervisor at the Health Department, estimates an additional 3,500 children will qualify this year for a lead intervention. He said the department's case monitor saw her case load jump from several hundred cases a couple of weeks ago to more than 1,000 open cases.
Symonik isn't sure how the Health Department will be able to respond to the surge in lead cases when its funding runs out later this summer.
Minnesota received $600,000 last year from the CDC for lead prevention. The money pays for three full-time staff positions, including part of his salary.
Symonik said some of those jobs could be eliminated if other funding sources aren't found soon.