CANTON — The state’s plan to impose stricter limits on lead poisoning levels is expected to stretch financial and manpower resources for St. Lawrence County’s Public Health Department.
The new guidelines take effect Oct. 1 and lower the amount of allowable lead levels in a person’s bloodstream from 15 micrograms per deciliter, down to 5 micrograms per deciliter.
Tricia Storie, head of the county’s lead prevention program, said the county is challenged by a higher than average poverty rate and large percentage of older housing stock — two factors associated with lead poisoning.
“Nearly 75 percent of homes in St. Lawrence County were built before 1979 when lead materials were banned,” she said. “Our goal in this county is try to reduce lead poisoning, we do this with prevention efforts. We try to reduce lead sources before they provide harm. We promote the testing of kids. We do the education to both the (health) providers and the public.”
Home visits, risk assessments, monitoring and case management are part of the agency’s lead poisoning prevention program.
Lead poisoning occurs when lead builds up in the body, often over months or years.
“Once it’s in the body it can affect virtually every organ system, basically it’s the heart, kidneys, bones, intestines,” she said.
Lead-based paint and lead-contaminated dust in older buildings are the most common sources of lead poisoning in children. Other sources include contaminated air, water and soil. Adults who work with batteries, do home renovations or work in auto repair shops also might be exposed to lead.
Lead poisoning in children can cause developmental delays and permanent brain damage. It can also result in hearing loss, seizures, antisocial behavior and other consequences, even death.
Ms. Storie outlined the challenges during a Power Point presentation to county legislators at their July 15 Services Committee meeting. The state’s new regulations may increase the workload enough to warrant hiring two to four more county public heath employees, she said.
“There will be more cases to monitor for longer periods of time,” she said. “It will require more home inspections to identify sources of lead, more coordination, phone calls and meetings.”
While lead poisoning can have lifelong negative consequences, it’s preventable, she said.
The final state budget only included a small increase in reimbursement to cover the extra cost of implementing the new regulations. The state’s $9.4 million allocation for local health services related to lead, leaves about 80 percent of the costs, an estimated $36.6 million, to local governments.
The SLC public health department is now following 37 children for elevated blood levels and its caseload has ranged from 36 to 52 within the past year.
Case management can include risk assessment, education, ordering repeat tests, home visits, consultation, enforcement action if necessary and coordination of hospitalization.
State law requires health providers to test children at ages 1 and 2, but many are not, Ms. Storie said.
Testing rates for all 1-year-olds in St. Lawrence County is at 45 percent and for 2-year-olds it’s 35 percent, according to data she provided.
“This could mean we have a significantly more children who are lead poisoned, but we are unaware of them,” Ms. Storie said.
The county’s Planning Office receives some funding through a Lead Hazard Reduction Grant provided through the federal Housing & Urban Development Department. That money helps pay for home rehabilitation and educational outreach.
Legislator James E. Reagen, R-Ogdensburg, said the area hospitals and other health providers need to assist the county in complying with the new lead poisoning guidelines.
“We need to get the others involved so this problem doesn’t continue. This is something that is preventable and can be addressed,” he said. “You guys are doing everything you can, but I think we, as a county, need to use our leadership role to marshal our healthcare agencies and say, hey guys, we need your involvement. This we can’t do by ourselves.”
County legislators passed a resolution asking the state to extend the implementation date beyond Oct. 1 and provide more funding to cover the costs it will impose on local government health agencies. The full board will finalize its vote at its Aug. 5 monthly board meeting