L.A. County, more than 15,000 children under age 6 tested high for lead between 2011 and 2015. In all, Reuters identified 323 neighborhood areas where the rate of elevated tests was at least as high as in Flint.
THOUSANDS OF U.S. LEAD HOTSPOTS
The L.A.-area findings are part of an ongoing Reuters examination of hidden lead hazards nationwide. Since last year, the news agency has identified more than 3,300 U.S. neighborhood areas with documented childhood lead poisoning rates double those found in Flint. Studies based on previously available data, surveying broad child populations across entire states or counties, usually couldn’t pinpoint these communities.
Despite decades of U.S. progress in curbing lead poisoning, millions of children remain at risk. Flint’s disaster is just one example of a preventable public health crisis that continues in hotspots coast to coast, Reuters has found.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s threshold for elevated lead is 5 micrograms per deciliter of blood. Children who test at or above that threshold warrant a public health response, the agency says. Even a slight elevation can reduce IQ and stunt childhood development. There’s no safe level of lead in children’s bodies.
Exposure from old paint, drinking water and soil are widely researched. Other risks – including some candies, ceramics, spices or remedies containing lead from China, Mexico, India and other countries – are less known.
The L.A. blood data covers nearly 1,550 census tracts, or county subdivisions, each with an average population around 4,000. It shows the number of small children tested in each tract, and how many tested high.
In California, the exposure risks children face can vary wildly by neighborhood. Many L.A. areas have little or no documented lead poisoning. Countywide, 2 percent of children tested high. But in hundreds of areas, the rate is far higher. Reuters crunched the data, and neighborhood-level results can be explored on an interactive map.
In the trouble areas, old housing is commonplace. Nearly half of L.A. County’s homes were built before 1960. Lead was banned from household paint in 1978, but old paint can peel, chip, or pulverize into toxic dust.
Poverty is another predictor of lead poisoning, and many of L.A.’s danger zones are concentrated in low-income or gentrifying areas near downtown and on the city’s densely populated South Side.
In one low-income area of South L.A., Reuters met with the family of Kendra Nicole Rojas, a three-year-old recently diagnosed with lead poisoning, only to find that 63 other small children living within a six block radius have also tested high.
The findings highlight a need for greater medical surveillance, abatement and awareness in the health-conscious county of 10 million, public health specialists said.
The county and city of Los Angeles have dedicated lead prevention programs that work with at-risk families. When a child’s blood levels persist above 10 micrograms per deciliter – double the CDC threshold – the family receives a home inspection, nurse visits and follow-up.
The effects of lead poisoning are irreversible, and the programs’ broader goal is to prevent any exposure. But success hinges on many actors, and assistance from agencies such as the CDC, the department of Housing and Urban Development and the Environmental Protection Agency. Like other regions, L.A. faces a looming hurdle in attacking hazards: President Donald Drumpf’s federal budget proposals would sharply cut funds for many lead-related programs.
Amid an affordable housing crisis in Los Angeles, many renters don’t confront landlords to fix lead paint hazards, fearing eviction if they raise the alarm, said Kite, the healthy homes advocate. That helps explain why so many children in south and central L.A. test high.
Karla Rojas, 26, was living with her extended family on 30th Street in a low-income area of South L.A. last year when her toddler, Kendra, started getting chronic bouts of illness.
Mother and daughter slept on the floor, near a bookshelf where an inspector later found flaking lead paint. Tested at the local St. John’s Well Child & Family Center, Kendra’s result came back at several times the CDC threshold.
Once county officials got involved, the landlord repainted the shelf and other areas where lead was found. Still, terrified her daughter’s exposure would continue, Rojas moved out.
Paint isn’t the only peril. A mile and a half east, in Vernon, the now shuttered Exide Technologies battery-recycling plant spewed noxious emissions for decades, polluting soil in thousands of properties with lead residue. A planned $175 million cleanup will rely in part on children’s blood tests to determine which properties should be sanitized first. Past testing has shown that children living close to the plant are at heightened risk.
Yet California, like Michigan, doesn’t require lead screening for all children, leaving many untested.
Prompted in part by Reuters’ previous coverage, California cities and lawmakers are pushing new initiatives to protect children.
Bill Quirk, chair of the state legislature’s Committee on Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials, recently introduced a bill to require screening for all small children.
‘DON’T WORRY, HE’S NOT AT RISK’
California’s current policy is to test children with known risk factors, including those enrolled in government assistance programs for the poor like Medicaid. The protocol, applied unevenly by healthcare providers, can miss poisoned kids.