The Allegheny County Board of Health has approved for public comment a policy that would require lead exposure testing for all young children in the county.
The draft regulation, approved by the health board on a unanimous vote Wednesday, would require that children be tested for lead between 9 and 12 months old, and again when they’re 2 years old. The results would be added to the immunization report schools are required to make to the county health department when the children enter kindergarten or grade school.
The policy, which is part of a more robust county effort to identify and mitigate childhood lead exposure issues, is aimed at giving the health department a better idea about how many children have high lead levels, were they live and how they were exposed.
Health Department Director Karen Hacker said the county’s aging housing stock — 80 percent of homes were built before 1978, when lead paint was banned — poses the biggest risk for children and was the rationale for the regulation.
“Paint is a major contributor to the risk and we need a better understanding of that risk,” she said. “And the only way to do that is through universal testing.”
About 14,000 of the 65,000 small children in the county have been tested for lead exposure, Dr. Hacker said.
Children are most at risk because they often put their hands into their mouths and can ingest peeling paint chips and dust found in home interiors and contaminated soil. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, exposure to even small amounts of lead can affect mental capacity and attention span and cause behavior problems and learning disabilities.
Allegheny County would be the first in the state to approve universal childhood lead testing, but the practice has been around for years. Eleven states, including Massachusetts, Connecticut and Iowa, require the tests. As with all universal testing or immunization programs, parents could chose not to have their children tested.
Dr. Hacker said most health insurance covers lead testing, and the county has applied for a $225,000 grant to cover testing and lead education for uninsured families at county health clinics. Dr. Donald Burke, a health board member, endorsed that effort, saying, “Children most likely to be exposed to lead may not have insurance.”
The county is also stepping up its housing lead remediation program. Ray Firth, former policy director at the University of Pittsburgh’s Office of Child Development and a critic of the county’s lead remediation efforts, said about 1,000 children in the county have high lead levels but the health department has only investigated 35.
“It’s great that the county is moving to count the number of lead exposure cases,’’ Mr. Firth said, “but it also has the legal authority and responsibility to notify the landlord and engage in prevention and remediation of a public health hazard,”
A 30-day public comment period will begin as soon as the draft regulation is published later this week. The final regulation, tentatively scheduled to become effective Jan. 1, 2018, requires approval by Allegheny County Council.