California may test all young kids for lead exposure

Three months after a Reuters study of national lead exposure data showed at least 13 communities in California faced as bad or worse contamination than Flint, Michigan – the poster city for U.S. lead risks –Assemblyman Bill Quirk is moving to address the potential public health crisis. The Hayward Democrat has introduced a bill that would require all children from 6 months to 6 years old to be tested for lead contamination.

Early exposure to lead has long been associated with cognitive problems. Writing last year in Mother Jones, Irvine journalist Kevin Drum said such exposure has been linked to lower IQs, violent crime and attention-deficit-hyperactivity disorder. The gradual increase in IQ across the world has been linked to new laws against lead-based paint and piping.

But in California, state law only requires lead testing for children who live in or frequently visit buildings built before the crackdown on lead-based paint began in the 1970s and for those who get benefits under government welfare programs.

“Given the ages of California’s infrastructure, lead exposure risks are ubiquitous,” Quirk told Kaiser Health News. “The current screening process only tests certain children. Better data can help us better identify clusters and arm the state with a thorough, more comprehensive response.”

In Flint, national media have focused for two years on the problems with water supplies created when Flint city leaders stopped using water piped in from Detroit’s water system to save money by using cheaper water from the polluted Flint River and other local sources. That led to a public health emergency being declared after the supply change apparently sent the number of children with elevated exposure to lead in blood tests soaring to 5 percent, twice the national norm. In December, Congress appropriated $120 million to help Flint deal with the problem.

State lead problems concentrated in Fresno area

But shortly afterward, Reuters issued a massive study based on lead exposure in the blood of children in ZIP code-based data compiled by the federal government in 21 states, including California. It found thousands of communities with lead problems as bad or worse than Flint’s. It identified 13 ZIP codes in California with elevated lead exposure among children. CalWatchdog was the first to report on Reuters’ specific findings about the Golden State.

Quirk’s district is just south of Fruitvale (ZIP code 94601), the Oakland community with the highest percentage of children exposed to excessive lead: 7.57 percent. Next worse was the Sand City-Seaside community (ZIP 93955) east of Monterey. The rate was 7.44 percent.

Nine ZIP codes in the Fresno area had problems worse than Flint: The worst off was Selma, southeast of Fresno (ZIP 93662), where 6.62 percent of children had excessive exposure.

The last two California communities with high children lead exposure were south-central Los Angeles (ZIP 90011), with a rate of 5.28 percent, and Rosemead-South San Gabriel (ZIP 91770), where the rate was 5.17 percent.

It’s not clear yet how much support or opposition Quirk is likely to attract. Reuters’ report didn’t spur anything like a Flint-style reaction among the California media. Meanwhile, health insurance lobbyists are likely to say that the state should pay the tab for a state-mandated test. Medi-Cal now pays for lead screening of children whose families receive government assistance, while health insurers pay for the screening – and pass along the cost through premiums – of children whose families have insurance.

Chris Reed

Chris Reed

Chris Reed is a regular contributor to Cal Watchdog. Reed is an editorial writer for U-T San Diego. Before joining the U-T in July 2005, he was the opinion-page columns editor and wrote the featured weekly Unspin column for The Orange County Register. Reed was on the national board of the Association of Opinion Page Editors from 2003-2005. From 2000 to 2005, Reed made more than 100 appearances as a featured news analyst on Los Angeles-area National Public Radio affiliate KPCC-FM. From 1990 to 1998, Reed was an editor, metro columnist and film critic at the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin in Ontario. Reed has a political science degree from the University of Hawaii (Hilo campus), where he edited the student newspaper, the Vulcan News, his senior year. He is on Twitter: @chrisreed99.

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