February 08, 2016
Allentown, Altoona and Scranton stand out amongst cities in Pennsylvania for having the highest percentage of children with worrisome levels of lead in the blood, according to a report released last year from the state's Department of Health.
Examining blood test data from 2014, the report highlighted the 20 cities that are most at risk because of older housing, poverty and a high proportion of very young children. Seventeen of them were above the state average when it came to the percentage of kids with high lead levels.
While no level of lead is considered safe in children, researchers raise red flags at 5 micrograms per deciliter of blood because, at that point, the child is above the 97th percentile for blood lead levels. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends medical treatment for lead poisoning at 45 micrograms but warns that "even low blood lead levels can cause lifelong health effects."
In Allentown, 23.11 percent of kids under the age of 7 who were tested had blood lead levels at 5 micrograms or above. That number was 20.45 percent in Altoona and 19.45 percent in Scranton. In comparison, 9.37 percent of kids tested in the state as a whole had such high levels of lead in the blood.
Results in Philadelphia weren't quite as bad: A little over one in 10 kids tested had high blood lead levels. Still, because of Philly's population, that translates to more than 3,600 children with toxic metal in their systems.
Note, however, that the majority of kids were not tested. Pennsylvania does not require lead testing for children, and only a little more than one in four children in the 20 highlighted cities got blood tests. Not only that, but the report noted that almost 4,000 fewer children were tested in 2014 compared to the year before.
Scientists also couldn't analyze whether there were racial patterns in the results because only around a third of the data included information on the child's race. Nationwide, African-American children are three times more likely than white children to have elevated lead levels, according to the CDC.
The lead poisoning crisis in Flint, Michigan, has brought increased scrutiny of other U.S. cities where children might be at risk. In Pennsylvania, however, the greatest risk is not from polluted water, as it is in Flint, but from aging homes where kids could be exposed to lead paint.
"Chipping, peeling paint is the No. 1 factor," Rhonda Stanek, supervisor of clinical services for the Montgomery County Health Department, told Newsworks.
Pennsylvania ranked third in the nation in the 2010 Census for having the most housing units built before 1950, the report said. Lead paint wasn't banned until 1978.
Overall, the children in these 20 high-risk cities account for almost half of all the kids in the state.
Read the full report here.