Tracking at the neighborhood level is helping Minnesota health officials curb childhood lead exposure.
Data released this week by the Minnesota Department of Health showed that only .2 percent of children had blood lead levels above the historical threshold of 10 mcg/dL (micrograms/deciliter), compared to 2.3 percent in 2000. Only .8 percent of children were above the new, stricter threshold of 5 mcg/dL.
Progress is coming as the leading culprit for childhood lead exposure — old houses coated with chipping or peeling lead-based paint — is diminishing amid tear downs and rebuilds, said Stephanie Yendell, supervisor of the state Health Department’s risk intervention unit.
People need to be wary, though, as lead exposure causes learning problems and disabilities, she said. Families must “be aware of potential lead paint in their homes — and if there is lead-based paint, that it is intact, that it is not chipping or peeling or breaking down and causing dust.”
Lead-based paint was commonly used in homes built before 1950, and in some homes built before 1978.
Urban neighborhoods continue to have the most problems. Testing in one census tract in north Minneapolis found elevated lead in 9.6 percent of children. Testing in one St. Paul neighborhood found elevated lead in 11 percent of children. The figures are based on tests from 2012 through 2016.
Analysis at the census tract level has helped state officials zero in on localized causes of lead exposure. State officials were perplexed by spikes in lead levels in Eden Prairie and Eagan, for example, where homes are generally newer.
Upon investigation, Yendell said the afflicted children came from immigrant families using lead-containing products from their homelands. Sindoor is a cosmetic powder, for example, worn in the hair of married Hindu women.
“Those products are a reddish color,” she said, “and red oxide also is reddish, so its added as a colorant.”
Exposure has happened in rural towns where old buildings are converted into new apartments, Yendell said. Remodeling itself can kick up dust, which is why families should work with lead-certified contractors, she added.
Elevated lead levels were found in 7.4 percent of children in the area of Madison, Minn. That was the highest rate outside of the Twin Cities.
The state has been spot-checking metal jewelry — a problem that gained heightened attention when a Minneapolis boy died in 2006 after swallowing a lead charm that came with his shoes. Yendell said lead in kids’ jewelry has become rare, though tests sometimes find cadmium, which also can be hazardous.
Yendell encouraged testing for children in high-risk areas at age 1, and again at age 2.
A negative test at age 1 “is a false sense of security for kids living in older homes,” she said, “because a 2-year-old is interacting with the environment completely differently than a 1-year-old.”