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Old Paint, Young Victims : The No. 1 source of childhood lead poisoning is household paint applied 15 to 100 years ago. An estimated 3 million children in the U.S. suffer from lead contamination.

Old Paint, Young Victims. FIRST OF 2 PARTS.

March 20, 1994|STEPHANIE O'NEILL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The symptoms that plagued Elizabeth Jimenez's 2-year-old twin daughter weren't really out of the ordinary. The irritability, bouts of insomnia and refusals to eat all mimicked the "terrible twos"--a stage most parents of toddlers know all too well.

Her pediatrician told her not to worry. But when little Alexandra vomited a dark substance, Jimenez became alarmed. A close family friend suggested the mother of five have her daughter tested for lead poisoning.

The test turned Jimenez's life upside-down. It showed that Alexandra was suffering a high level of the disease.

"I was shocked," Jimenez recalled. "I was scared. I was really scared."

She had good reason to be. Apparently, when the family lived in an 80-year-old house in Pomona, Alexandra had ingested invisible lead dust from the painted walls. She also chewed on lead-tainted woodwork. Enough poison had entered her small body to cause some neurological damage.

A lead level higher than 10 micrograms per deciliter of blood is considered unsafe by the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Alexandra's blood measures 49 micrograms per deciliter of blood.

(A microgram is to a deciliter about what an eyedropper of liquid is to a gallon.)

Nearly 100 years after lead poisoning in children was first recognized, the metal continues to contaminate an estimated 3 million young children in California and the nation, inflicting upon them, most experts believe, learning disabilities, hyperactivity, lowered IQ, impaired motor coordination and in the most serious cases mental retardation and even death.

"We're finding lots of kids with lead poisoning who basically have had their lives limited," said Dr. Sue Binder, chief of the CDC Lead Poisoning branch. "The fact that it's all preventable--that we don't have to have poisoned children--makes it a real tragedy."

"It is the foremost preventable health hazard to children," agreed Don Ryan, executive director of the nonprofit public interest group, Alliance to End Childhood Lead Poisoning in Washington. "It eclipses every other health hazard."

Today, the No. 1 source of childhood lead poisoning is household paint applied between 15 to 100 years ago, with the older paint used before 1950 usually containing the highest lead levels, experts say.

The paint itself isn't the problem. It's the oxidation and deterioration of the paint, which creates a nearly invisible, highly toxic dust that settles inside the house--on floors, walls, furniture and toys. Young children often put dust-coated toys and fingers in their mouths and ingest the lead that way. Other children get it by eating paint chips and chewing on such lead-painted surfaces as window sills.

The Northridge earthquake is certain to have made matters worse, kicking up lead dust and cracking old paint as it twisted apart thousands of structures and jolted many more.

And the post-quake repairs are only worsening the problem, said Margo Derry, acting director of the Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program for the County of Los Angeles Department of Health Services.

"We had a problem before with people renovating houses," Derry said. "Now with the earthquake and all the (repair) work going on, the problem is infinite."

California Department of Health Services officials recorded about 700 cases of childhood lead poisoning statewide in 1993, with 12% of those cases considered medical emergencies.

In Los Angeles County, 529 children were diagnosed as lead poisoned last year, about 60% of them from paint.

The rest were contaminated by a number of other lead sources: soil, lead-tainted home remedies--especially popular with some Latino and Asian communities--pottery and china finished with unsafe lead glazes and lead solders in some canned goods and plumbing fixtures.

But health officials believe that the diagnosed cases represent only a fraction of the actual number of poisoned children. They expect childhood lead poisoning cases to soar as routine testing of all children up to 6 years old takes hold in California.

It's estimated more than a half-million California children face the risk of lead poisoning. Many of those afflicted with the condition don't look or act sick. The disease offers no definitive symptoms, except at its most acute levels.

"A lot of times children can be exposed to lead and it's causing an adverse neuro-psychological effect and you wouldn't really know it because the children don't become symptomatic," said Bob Schlag, head of the Lead Hazard Reduction Department of the California Department of Health Services. "What we're concerned about are the subtle cognitive deficits in children."

Testing for lead poisoning, he said, is the only way to detect the disease and his office now recommends every child be tested at least once, with regular testing for those exposed to greater lead hazards.

The American Academy of Pediatrics revised its policy on blood lead testing in July and now recommends that all children be tested at about 1 year of age for elevated levels.

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