Allegheny County Health Board Moves Forward With Mandated Lead Testing For Children

Jan 13, 2017

Karen Hacker, Allegheny County Health Department Director, says children from ages 9 to 12 months old are susceptible to the effects of lead poisoning from paint.
Credit Claire Black / Flickr

The Allegheny County Board of Health wants children to be regularly tested for lead poisoning.

The board is moving forward with a new rule that would mandate blood testing at 9 months and again at 2 years of age, as recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Karen Hacker, director of the Allegheny County Health Department, said children in that age range put things in their mouths, making them more susceptible to poisoning than adults.

“If they happen to be crawling on the floor, their toys are on the floor and if there is dust on the floor, for example, from paint or soil or whatever that has lead in in, it is a much higher risk for them,” she said.  

At that age, a child’s brain is also still developing and exposure to neurotoxins could have negative effects. Dr. Anthony Pizon, Chief of Medical Toxicology at UPMC, said lead can prevent a child's young brain from getting the calcium it needs. Lead exposure can also cause the premature death of cells needed in a growing body.  

While instances of lead poisoning in children have decreased in recent years, the majority of homes in Allegheny County were built before lead was taken out of paint in 1978. In an urban area like Pittsburgh, with a history of industrial pollution, Hacker said children are even more at risk from deposits in the soil.

Hacker said some pediatricians throughout the county use a questionnaire to determine who they test. She said they test children who might be vulnerable due to factors such as the age of their home and family history.

“We would like to get everyone tested and move away from the use of this questionnaire as a screening tool to the actual blood test as a screening tool,” she said.

If the regulation is passed, Hacker said the county will collect those test results along with other immunization records when the child enters kindergarten.

A positive test could lead to inspection of the home to figure out the origin of the lead exposure. But until the child enters kindergarten there is no way to track if doctors are testing children.

Hacker said her department will push for doctors to log lead tests to the state’s database PA-NEDDS in the same way they log immunization records.

After a 30-day public comment period, the board will draft new legislation taking into account suggestions. That will move to county council for a vote as an ordinance.

“One of the ways we can understand our burden of lead is to assume we have lead in our environment, so every child is going to get tested," Hacker said.