Connecticut U.S. Rep Rosa DeLauro is introducing a bill that could help defend New Haven children from the threat of lead poisoning.
DeLauro’s bill, the SMART Child Act, would commit $150 million to fund lead poisoning prevention, detection and treatment nationwide. The acronym SMART stands for “screen, manage, address and remove toxins for children.” Amid refrigerators that kept interrupting speakers with hums, she and others discussed the bill Monday morning at a press conference in a medical storage room at New Haven Health Department’s Meadow Street offices. She was joined by doctors from the New Haven and Connecticut health departments and from Yale-New Haven Hospital.
Although cases of lead poisoning have dropped substantially in New Haven since the 1990s, over 300 children in the city are diagnosed annually with blood lead levels past 5 micrograms per deciliter, according to Carl Baum, director of the Yale-New Haven Children’s Hospital Lead Treatment Center, who spoke at the Monday conference. Many doctors consider 5 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood the threshold for poisoning.
DeLauro said over four million children across the nation are being exposed regularly to high levels of lead.
“Lead poisoning is a crisis in this country,” DeLauro said. “I do not say that lightly.”
Money from the bill would pay for educating families and communities on ways to prevent children from being exposed to lead, for managing cases for children who have been diagnosed with lead poisoning, and for blood tests and other screening measures, according to DeLauro. DeLauro said the only way to definitively detect lead poisoning is via blood testing.
New Haven’s aging housing stock is the city’s largest lead threat, according to city Health Director Byron Kennedy, who spoke at the conference. Over 80 percent of homes in New Haven were built before 1978, when lead was still commonly used in pipes and paint. Children in the Elm City who spend time in older homes and other older buildings are at risk of ingesting lead paint chips and dust, according to Kennedy.
Unlike in some other cities across the country, lead contaminated tap water is not as much of a threat in New Haven, according to Kennedy.
Connecticut law states that children between 9 months and 36 months old must be tested for lead once a year. Baum said pediatricians in New Haven do a good job of screening for lead poisoning around the 12 month mark, but not as good a job of running tests after that point. Baum said children between the ages of 12 months and 24 months are especially at risk of exposure to lead, because children’s fine motor skills develop greatly during that time, allowing them to more easily ingest paint chips and dust. He urged New Haven pediatricians to run tests on children when they reach 24 months.
DeLauro cited recent cuts in federal funding for lead poisoning prevention as an impetus for creating the bill. She explained that in 2005 the federal government created a program to combat lead poisoning, but that funding for that program dropped from $35 million to $2 million from 2011 to 2012. The program was only allotted $17 million in the 2017 federal budget. That is not nearly enough money to prevent and treat lead poisoning effectively nationwide, according to DeLauro.
DeLauro added that even the $150 million in additional funds promised by the bill is not enough to appropriately combat the “crisis” of lead poisoning nationwide, but that it represents an improvement from the current situation.
Lead poisoning causes learning, hearing and behavioral problems and can harm brain, bone and muscle development. DeLauro stressed the importance of preventing poisoning, because the effects of lead poisoning can not be reversed.