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Experts warn of more lead exposure, poisoning as warmer weather begins

Multnomah County health officials say every spring and summer, reports of lead poisoning rise as exposure increases.

MULTNOMAH COUNTY, Ore. — As weather improves in spring and summer, local health officials warn of increased risk of lead exposure.

"There is a seasonality to lead poisoning, and it tends to spike in the summer," explained Perry Cabot, Multnomah County Health's lead specialist.

Cabot said as people begin home improvement projects in the warmer months, they may inadvertently disturb contaminated paint inside or outside their homes.

Lead paint was banned in 1978, so homes built prior—especially before 1950— have higher risk of lead contamination.

In a news release, Multnomah County said dust from disturbed lead paint is the number-one way children are exposed, causing permanent cognitive impairments and other health effects.

Since exposure does not present obvious symptoms, only a blood test can confirm exposure or poisoning.

"It's devastating," Cabot said. "Imagine the fear ... a parent feels when that happens ... Helplessness in the face of this thing that is silently injuring their child."

Children and toddlers who crawl are the most vulnerable, because they're more often on the ground closer to contamination and touching hands, fingers and other items to their mouths. Younger bodies are also not able to flush out toxins as efficiently as adults.

In 2019, 47 children in Multnomah County tested for elevated blood lead levels. Cabot investigated 46 of those cases in which the source was unknown and potentially ongoing.

Multnomah County has a website and hotline devoted to lead resources and solutions.

The website shows detailed photos of household items that may contain lead. Old wooden doors stripped of paint, painted furniture and peeling windows are some examples.

Some other culturally specific items are also on the list.

Neyra Sanchez, a mother in Gresham, learned the hard way.

On a family trip to Mexico, she bought traditional pottery dishes to use with meals. When Sanchez took her 1-year-old daughter, Aleida, to the doctor for a routine checkup, tests revealed elevated levels of lead.

"We were a little bit shocked," Sanchez said, describing her home as new and free from lead paint. "My husband is a painter ... We should know where lead's coming from."

Sanchez called the Multnomah County Leadline. After Cabot asked some questions, he determined the imported pottery was a likely source of lead.

"The Latinx community have been testing positive for lead in the blood," Sanchez explained.

She counts herself fortunate the Leadline helped her track down the problem early and before Aleida's lead levels reached higher levels.

"She's a special little girl," Sanchez said.

Other cultural items possibly containing lead include colorful powders from the Middle East and India used for traditional makeup and festivals. Turmeric spice from outside the U.S. is also sometimes mixed with a yellow powder containing lead.

The County Leadline works to connect people with lead testing, state-licensed contractors who deal with lead and assistance for lead paint remediation.

Low and moderate income earners who live in older Portland homes can receive help from the city’s Lead Hazard Control Program.

Multnomah County said pediatric guidelines recommend lead testing for children around age 1 and again at 2. However, national data suggest the COVID-19 pandemic caused families to miss scheduled screenings.

RELATED: Pediatric vaccinations down nearly 40% for some age groups during the pandemic

The number of U.S. children who tested for elevated blood lead levels dropped by about one-third at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In April 2020, Oregon saw a 40% drop in lead testing for children younger than 6 compared to the previous year.

The pandemic also prevented health officials from investigating lead sources in people's homes.

Cabot has worked to make up the difference, by coaching parents over the phone.

“To be lead detectives, talking through strategies to identify and control lead hazards in their own homes,” he said.

Contact the Leadline at 503-988-4000 or leadline@multco.us.

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