Children in Mississippi have higher levels of lead in their blood than they did six years ago, according to a study published in the Journal of Pediatrics. The Mississippi State Health Department refutes this data, suggesting children's blood lead levels have gone down over the past several years.
Data from Quest Diagnostics shows that from 2009 to 2015, nearly 10,000 Mississippi children under 6 with high blood lead levels jumped from 3.6 percent to 6.3 percent. This was the highest increase in children with unsafe blood lead levels out of 37-state data set.
“There are a lot of kids in Mississippi who are dealing with high lead,” said Dr. Harvey Kaufman, senior medical director of Quest Diagnostics.
Breaking down the numbers
These percentages are smaller than that reported for Mississippi by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but that's because of what the CDC calls a mistake within the state's reporting method.
Quest, one of the largest providers of diagnostic information services across the United States, used a reference level of 5 micrograms per deciliter to identify children with higher levels of lead in their blood. This is the threshold experts use, according to the CDC. It is based on the 97.5th percentile, meaning that 2.5 percent of children have a blood lead level equal to or higher than 5 on average.
The study found that on average, 3 percent of children had blood lead levels at or above 5 across the country. This suggests the number of children in Mississippi with unsafe blood lead levels is double the national average.
Exposure to lead can effect fetuses in pregnant women, increasing the likeliness of premature birth. While virtually invisible, it can also effect IQs in children. "Even modest levels have impact on IQ from which no one recovers," Kaufman said.
It also has negative impacts on the heart, liver and other organs. "There’s no role for lead in the body. Nothing in our body needs lead," Kaufman said.
While the six-year study analyzed 5.27 million blood test results of small children across the entire country, Quest only chose states with more than 2,000 samples to include in its results. Out of 37 states in the study, Mississippi had the 11th highest number of children with elevated blood lead levels.
The states with the highest percentage of children with high blood lead levels were: Minnesota (10.3 percent), Pennsylvania (7.8 percent), Kentucky (7.1 percent), Ohio (7 percent) and Connecticut (6.7 percent). The lowest percentages were found in California (1.4 percent) and Florida (1.1 percent).
In some zip codes, one out of every seventh child had dangerously high levels of lead in their blood. Those include specific regions in New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio.
Lead in Mississippi
Only children who are Medicaid recipients are required to have blood lead testing. Still, only 17 percent of Medicaid-eligible children in the state were screened. In Mississippi, 79 percent of children receive Medicaid.
"A large portion of them are at risk for lead poisoning and should have been screened," reads a report from Mississippi Department of Health.
Experts consider these children, generally of lower socioeconomic status, at greater risk of high blood lead levels, especially considering the greatest risk for lead exposure happens in older homes.
The plumbing in homes built before 1978 may contain lead materials and soldering, which can leach into the drinking water. And more concerning: those homes could contain lead paint, which was not outlawed until 1978 and is a great contributor to high blood lead levels in children.
“We have a long way to go, both in terms of contaminated water and residual lead-based paint, to reduce disparities that put some of our children at disproportionate risk of exposure to lead," Kaufman said in Quest's press release.
Other than Medicaid recipients, "not many people go and have their children tested," said Liz Sharlot, Mississippi Department of Health spokesperson.
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