The dangerous lead levels found in the Flint, Michigan, water supply have prompted Arizona health officials to remind parents about the dangers of lead poisoning.
But none of the local lead poisoning concerns is about the public drinking water here, stresses Dr. Francisco Garcia, director of the Pima County Health Department.
“People keep asking me if they should be buying bottled water. People are feeling anxious,” Garcia said. “The quality of our drinking water that comes from public sources is extremely safe and we don’t need to worry. I would not direct people to drink bottled water.”
The local public water supply may be safe, but there are other ways that children can be poisoned by lead. Last year, 432 Arizona children had elevated levels of lead in their blood, including 23 in Pima County, state health data show.
“Any time we can prevent children from being exposed to lead, we have to take responsibility for doing that,” Garcia said.
Even with low levels of lead, children’s intelligence, behavior, hearing and growth can be irreparably damaged, says Dr. Cara Christ, director of the Arizona Department of Health Services.
Most children will not have any symptoms. The only way to detect lead poisoning is through a blood test that is typically covered by insurance and is available by asking for one at the pediatrician’s office.
The state has identified numerous high-risk ZIP codes in Arizona, including 21 in Tucson, using a formula that takes into consideration the age of homes in the area, children in that area who have had elevated levels in the past and the risks based on demographic data, such as the number of people who work in high-risk professions, Christ said. (See box for Tucson’s high-risk ZIP codes).
State health officials recommend that all children living in a high-risk ZIP code receive a blood lead test at 12 and 24 months of age.
“The group highest at risk is children under the age of six. Their brains are still developing,” Christ said. “And adults don’t tend to put things in their mouths. You have to ingest the lead for it to really have high impact.”
Sources of lead poisoning include houses peeling and chipping paint in houses built before 1980; dirt containing lead that’s tracked into houses; old furniture and toys; play or costume jewelry; pewter and crystal glassware; and glazed pottery from other countries. Mexican candy and Asian, Hispanic and Indian spices also may contain lead, state officials say.
Anyone who has an older house should not attempt to sand off the paint themselves. Either paint over it or get a professional to do the job. Stripping off older layers of paint is a risk because the paint could be lead-based, end up on the ground and tracked to other places.
And if it’s ingested by children, the results can be devastating.
“It can cause developmental problems, neurological issues, headaches, stomachaches and at really high levels children can have convulsions and die,” Christ said.
About a third of the cases in Arizona last year were in children 16 years old and younger who were born outside of the United States, according to state data.
Somalia was the most common country of origin of non-native-born children identified with elevated blood lead levels. As a result, the state is working with the Somali American United Council of Arizona to educate and train case managers and community members on the importance of repeat testing for children under the age of 16.
Christ says the state is also working with pediatricians to make them aware of high-risk ZIP codes and reinforce the importance of testing.
Foods that can help lower your child’s lead level include tomatoes, strawberries, oranges, potatoes, milk, cheese, yogurt, peas and fish.