Health chief: Use Flint woes to spotlight lead paint threat

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Flint, Michigan's lead-contaminated water crisis presents an opportunity for Indiana public health advocates to shine a spotlight on the much larger health threat children face from lead-based paint in old homes, Indiana's health commissioner said Thursday.

Dr. Jerome Adams urged about 100 people who attended the annual Indiana Lead Forum to "ride the wave of public interest" in Flint's crisis and help spread the word about how parents can lower their children's risk of exposure to lead in paint, dust and soil in and around older homes.

"Many of you have been wanting to talk about lead for decades, and let's be honest you've been largely ignored, unfortunately," he told the Indianapolis gathering. "While there's nothing good about what happened in Flint, it is an opportunity because now people are talking about lead."

About 90 percent of Indiana's child lead poisoning cases are caused by lead in and around older homes, with lead in water accounting for the remaining 10 percent, said Mary Hollingsworth, the drinking water chief for the Indiana Department of Environmental Management.

The federal government banned lead-based residential paints in 1978. But Adams said nearly two-thirds of Indiana's homes were built before 1980, putting many children at risk if those homes aren't tested for lead or children living there aren't screened for lead exposure.

Children poisoned by lead show no obvious symptoms, but even low levels of the heavy metal have been shown to affect a child's IQ, their ability to pay attention and academic achievement. Last year, about 40,000 Indiana children age six and under were screened for lead exposure and 127 were found to have lead poisoning, Adams said. Those 40,000 children represent only about 7 percent of Indiana youngsters in that age group.

While there's a debate in the medical community over which children should be screened for lead due to varying risk factors, some recommend that all children be tested as a precaution, state Department of Health spokesman Ken Severson said.

IDEM is working to revise some of its rules for lead-water testing in response to Flint's water woes, Hollingsworth said, adding that it'll include shortening the time period that Indiana municipalities have before they must provide lead test results to homeowners whose drinking water was tested. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's rule requires results within 30 days, but IDEM is considering making that response time 10 days.

"I think 30 days of waiting before a consumer knows their lead test is kind of a flaw," she said.

She also said IDEM has the ability to make such changes because Gov. Mike Pence vetoed a bill in March that would have required the agency to report to the Legislature before implementing new pollution or waste management regulations.

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