Tacoma to test kids’ lead levels

TACOMA — For years, health officials have warned parents here that children could be jeopardized by exposure to lead-tainted soils, a legacy of the old Asarco smelter.

Now, hardly a day goes by without a national news report about lead in children’s toys, lunchboxes or cosmetics. And state Health Department officials say there’s no safe level of lead, a powerful neurotoxin that hinders brain development and disrupts behavior.

But government officials have never tried to determine whether Pierce County children have been harmed by lead exposure. That’s about to change, thanks to a $98,000 federal grant to the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department.

“There are suspected, but undocumented elevated blood lead levels in Tacoma,” said Barbara Ross, a federal Environmental Protection Agency official in Seattle who will oversee the work.

The Tacoma grant, approved Oct. 1, is one of five totaling $406,000 provided to Washington and Oregon communities, she said. The EPA’s goal is to reduce childhood lead poisoning, promote screening and boost public awareness of the risks.

Over the next two years, Tacoma Health Department officials plan to set up partnerships with such community organizations as Centro Latino and the Tacoma Urban League to screen at least 800 children and teach their parents about the dangers of lead.

Screening is scheduled to begin in February, said Frank DiBiase, Health Department prevention coordinator. The focus will be on children from poor families and those belonging to racial and ethnic minority groups, though DiBiase said no one will be turned away.

Nationwide, the most common way children get exposed to lead is accidental ingestion of lead paint, commonly applied to homes before a 1978 ban.

For that reason, lead screening and abatement programs in many U.S. cities, particularly in the East and Midwest, have targeted older, deteriorated neighborhoods, where poor children live.

A high concentration of older houses in some parts of Tacoma is one reason health officials chose to focus on children from poor families, DiBiase said.

Another concern is the lack of attention to lead poisoning in the home countries of some of the parents and other family members of children at risk, he said.

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