Lead levels in Wisconsin children are double the national rate

LA CROSSE (WKBT) — A recent study has found that lead levels in the blood of Wisconsin’s children are more than double the national rate.

The study looked at more than 1 million children younger than 6 in all 50 states. In 24 states, results showed that more than half the children had detectable lead levels in their blood. In Wisconsin, the rate was 4.3%; the national average is 1.9%. No amount is considered safe.

Though the use of lead paint and lead in gasoline are long out of practice, and many homes built with lead pipes have since had them replaced, there have been instances of children becoming poisoned from paint dust in older homes, specifically by playing in soil near a house where paint may be flaking off, or from forgotten portions of a home improvement project.

“Even if you’ve done renovations with painting, a lot of times, we might forget about things like windows or doors or the original door casings,” said Christie Harris, wellness education specialist at Gundersen Health System. “People should make sure that it’s not flaking off.”

Symptoms of lead poisoning include constipation and stomach pain, fatigue, loss of appetite, and a blue tinge around the gums. Small amounts may not exhibit these symptoms, but the CDC warns that even low levels in babies could affect behavior and intelligence, and it could increase the risk of cardiovascular disease later in life.

Toddlers, too, are susceptible to poisoning, as they’re at an increased risk because of hand to mouth behaviors. Nursing mothers should also take care, as lead can be passed to their baby through breast milk.

Because of the rising levels of lead poisoning, Gundersen Health System is launching a campaign aimed at educating patients about lead and anemia screening, as well as alerting them of overdue treatments. As part of the campaign, patients will receive a message identifying the necessary actions, such as a blood test.

Lead screening rates have dropped over the past couple of years, a result exacerbated by the pandemic, according to Liz Hansen, MD, pediatrics. But these tests are important, she said, because lead poisoning in the region is a concern.

“It is a local problem,” Hansen said of the elevated levels of lead in children. “I think there is a perception amongst families that because we’re not a large urban area, it’s not an issue here, but our rates are higher than the national average, and it’s important for us to screen and identify children with lead exposure.”

Harris encourages those who live in older homes to find out what material was used for plumbing and inspect the paint condition. Should you find lead in your home and need assistance paying for its removal, the Lead-Safe Homes Program through the Wisconsin Department of Health Services has a variety of options to help qualifying homeowners. Visit the website at www.dhs.wisconsin.gov/lead/lshp to learn more.