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California and the West

State's Screening for Lead Poisoning Called Inadequate

April 14, 1999|From Associated Press

SACRAMENTO — State officials have failed to identify thousands of children statewide who may have been exposed to highly toxic lead, the state's top auditor said Tuesday.

"The Department of Health Services has not focused its resources where they need to be," said Kurt Sjoberg, the state auditor. "The department mandated tests for lead, but they never monitored it or oversaw it and demanded compliance with their mandates."

In 1986, the Legislature ordered the Department of Health Services to determine the extent of lead poisoning among California children.

The department recently estimated that more than 130,000 California children between the ages of 1 and 5 have elevated lead levels, mainly from exposure to lead-based paints. It estimated that 40,000 children have levels that warrant medical attention. However, as of January, the department has identified only 3,500 of those 40,000 who need medical care or other services, the report said.

Department of Health officials did not dispute the report's findings. Instead, they blamed years of litigation for cutting off the funds necessary to properly run their lead poisoning program.

They cited a lawsuit by a paint company that charged that it was illegal for the department to pay for its lead poisoning program from a fund generated by a tax on paint and petroleum, officials said. The tax has since been upheld.

"We concur with much of the report and many of the problems have already been corrected," said Dr. Raymond Neutra, chief of the division of environmental and occupational disease control for the department. "But for years we didn't have the money to run the program correctly."

The lawsuit forced the department to cut back its lead poisoning program by as much as 40%, Neutra said.

The report said the department, specifically its Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program, has failed to identify more children with lead poisoning because it is not making sure that children in Medi-Cal and public health programs have had their required blood tests for lead.

The report also said that efforts to track the results of children who are tested are "severely flawed." As a result, the department has insufficient data for it to identify the number of children tested, those with elevated blood levels, and the areas within the state where lead poisoning occurs most frequently.

Department officials acknowledged the problem, but said it starts in doctors' offices, where physicians are failing to screen patients for lead poisoning.

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