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Officials Discount Lead-Poisoning Statistics : Environment: Projection that a fourth of Ventura County children are affected is biased, local authorities say, because it is based on Eastern communities with more older homes.

March 08, 1990|AURORA MACKEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ventura County health officials are skeptical that a fourth of county children have low-level lead poisoning, as suggested in a national study.

Because many of the houses in the county were built after lead-based paint was banned by the state, lead exposure to children cannot be that high, officials said.

The study, conducted by the Washington-based Environmental Defense Fund, used census data and federal lead exposure estimates to determine the probable exposure to children in U.S. metropolitan areas.

Estimates were derived from the number of children ages 6 months to 5 years living in older houses where lead-based paint is most often found, as well as on the income level of their families. Data gathered from recent screening programs in such cities as Oakland and Baltimore fell within 5% of the agency's blood-level predictions, EDF officials said.

"Actually, in Ventura County, those figures could be somewhat understated because it didn't consider the Asian and Hispanic population," Jim Middaugh, a spokesman for the EDF, said of the study. "The data only considered black and white children."

Children are particularly vulnerable to lead poisoning--with effects that include lowered IQ levels, behavioral problems, and impairment to short-term memory and reaction time--because of the sensitivity of their rapidly developing nervous systems. Lead paint, 3 million tons of which is estimated to remain on walls and woodwork of American homes, is considered the source of the intense levels of exposure to children.

Several officials in the county questioned the study's findings.

"I would expect a low likelihood of those levels being accurate" for Ventura County, said Lawrence Dodds, director of Ventura County Public Health Services. "I would question whether you could extrapolate from cities like Oakland or Philadelphia to Ventura" because houses in Ventura are much newer.

Paul Tryon, executive officer of the Building Industries Assn., a trade association that represents 400 construction-related companies in Ventura County, agreed. Because most houses in the area were built after the state banned lead-based interior house paint in 1977, the 25% estimate by the EDF sounds high, he said.

"I would think that the risk posed by lead-based paint would be relatively insignificant" in Ventura County, he said.

"They're making lot of assumptions in that report because they're calculating the number of children in a certain group in older houses," said Dana Determan, an environmental specialist with the Ventura County Department of Environmental Health. "They're concerned with small children who pick off the paint and eat it."

Experts in lead poisoning, however, say eating lead is not the only way children can be exposed.

"There is plenty of evidence that normal behavior on the part of children can bring them in contact with lead," said Mary Haan, director of the Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention program with the California Department of Health Services in Emeryville.

The Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that 30% of the daily intake of lead by children is from water and old pipes. But dust from lead-based paint is still the most significant source, the EPA says.

Concern over lead poisoning in children is not new. In 1971, citing "epidemic proportions," Congress passed the Lead-Based Paint Poisoning Prevention Act, which authorized a wide range of measures to identify and treat people already effected by exposure to lead. It also called for removal of lead-based paint from homes and prohibited the paint's use in areas believed to be accessible to children.

But, according to the EDF report, key provisions in the act "faltered badly from the start" and did little to correct the problem.

Haan, with the state Department of Health Services, said Los Angeles County is the only one in California with a program aimed at addressing lead poisoning in young children.

"What's important to keep in mind is that, even if these figures are too high by half, they still represent an epidemic," said Karen Florini, senior attorney with the EDF and co-author of the report.

"One 11-year follow-up study showed that children who had only moderately elevated lead levels had a seven-fold higher drop-out rate" than their unaffected classmates, she said. "We just cannot tolerate that as a society."

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