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July 1, 2013

Lead still causing health problems in north Georgia

Thousands of children across north Georgia have tested positive for low levels of lead in their blood over the past decade.

“As far as action-level numbers, I’ve visited a couple of hundred homes at least over the past nine years,” said Jason Osgatharp, the regional lead coordinator for Georgia health districts 1-1, 1-2 and 2, an area covering all of north Georgia.

When tests show that a child under 6 has at least 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter in his or her blood, Osgatharp is brought in to try to determine the source. He briefed the Whitfield County Board of Health last week on his efforts.

Although the United States has banned paints containing lead for almost 40 years, Osgatharp said many older houses still have lead paint. He said that jewelry, especially antique jewelry or jewelry made in places such as China or Mexico, can contain lead. And children can get lead into their bodies by licking such objects or putting them in their mouths. He said he recently traced one girl’s lead exposure to a piece of antique jewelry she played with at her grandmother’s house.

“It was a very modern house, and we couldn’t find anything that might be a problem, until we looked there at the bottom of a box,” he said. “We asked the grandmother about it (the jewelry), and she said the girl always liked to play with it.”

He said children of all races and ethnicities can have high blood levels of lead, but in north Georgia most of the cases have been among Hispanic children.

“Gainesville is a real hot spot, probably because of the traditional Hispanic culture there. For instance, many of the families still use traditional home remedies that contain lead,” he said.

Osgatharp said some of the powdered folk remedies Mexican parents give their children for colic have high levels of lead. He said some Mexican candies also have lead in them but that problem has been decreasing since California health officials began cracking down on the candies.

Dalton Mayor David Pennington, a health board member, asked why Dalton, with its large Hispanic population, doesn’t have a similar lead problem. Osgatharp said it may have to do with how they maintain their traditional culture.

“Maybe the Hispanics in Dalton aren’t as tied to the old ways from their home country,” he said.

Lead exposure can reduce blood flow and nerve function and cause kidney failure. Long-term exposure can reduce IQ and even shrink the brain and cause a host of personality programs.

Children who take part in programs such as Medicaid are automatically screened if they have health risks such as living in an older house or belonging to certain racial or ethnic groups.

“But I do worry that many children are falling through the cracks and we are not spotting them,” Osgatharp said.

Pennington said he wants to make sure that no Dalton children are falling through the cracks. He said the Leaders to Readers program, the early readership collaboration between Dalton and Whitfield County, will ask Osgatharp to make a presentation on lead to its board.

“We want to make sure, as we try to get these kids reading on grade level, that we don’t have the same problem Gainesville has,” Pennington said. “We want to make sure that we get to the bottom of our achievement gap in this community starting at a very early age.”

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