MACOMB - Nationwide news reports of lead poisoning in children have prompted changes to state laws, demanding greater accountability and mitigation of the heavy metal. On Wednesday, the governor signed Senate Bill 550 into law. The bill requires school districts, daycares and other facilities where youth may be at high risk of contracting lead poisoning to test their water supplies for lead. Similarly, Senate Bill 2300, which was amended in August 2016 and took effect on Jan. 1, requires greater accountability from homeowners and landlords for the lead in their buildings. Although lead has long been a component of many man-made items and substances in our environment, the recent travails of residents suffering lead poisoning in Flint, Mich., have resurfaced concerns about lead in the environment, particularly in our water pipes and buildings.
"It's something that's never gone away," Chris Adams, environmental director at the McDonough County Health Department said. "We've always been dealing with it." Lead poisoning is of serious concern, particularly for children six years and under and for pregnant women. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, even low levels of lead in children can cause behavior and learning problems, lowered IQ, hyperactivity and other behavior issues, slowed growth, hearing problems and anemia.
High levels of lead in pregnant and lactating women can be transmitted to children, particularly if the mothers do not get enough dietary calcium. This is because lead is released from the mother's bones as maternal calcium to help form the bones of the developing fetus, and can also cross the placental barrier to the developing fetus. Lead exposure during pregnancy can cause reduced growth of the fetus, and premature birth.
Since 1993, Illinois has mandated screening for lead poisoning in children between six months and six years of age. Illinois is currently one of only a few states to require the testing, Adams said. Lead accumulates in the body over time, causing increasing heath, learning and behavioral problems - particularly in young and developing children - the more it accumulates. Early childhood testing and intervention is critical for uncovering the problem and preventing it from getting worse, and acts as a way to alert health officials to the presence of lead in people's homes and surrounding environment.
Nevertheless, Illinois maintains one of the highest rates in the nation for the number of children with elevated blood lead levels, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health. Lead in Chicago made the headlines last year when it was discovered in school drinking water, contaminated soil, and buildings in poor neighborhoods, where blood lead levels taken in 2015 were five times higher than they had been in 2013. Locally, several zip codes within McDonough County are listed as at high-risk for pediatric lead poisoning, according to the IDPH. Health department officials are certified and licensed lead inspectors. When a child's blood lead level tests at 10 micrograms per deciliter or higher, officials conduct a risk assessment of the child's home.
The assessment includes taking samples such as dirt, dust and paint to find out where the lead is coming from. Once a determination of the lead source is made, the health department gives the landlord or homeowner a lead mitigation notice and a timeframe to submit an action plan to correct or abate the lead. When the timeframe has passed, the department will then conduct a follow-up investigation to re-test the home. Reducing or eliminating the hazard as safely and quickly as possible is crucial. "We don't want to see the child get further increased lead levels. It's very important that they don't have blood lead levels increasing because it will affect their development," Adams said. He added that high blood lead levels can lead to attention deficit issues and severely impact learning overall.
Lead has been used in many different ways, including lead-based paint, leaded gasoline, pipes and soldering, among many others. Lead is present in many of the objects and environments people encounter every day, from the dirt around a house's foundation to the water from drinking fountains in public settings. This makes it difficult to avoid completely, and hazardous to try to mitigate without proper training. Dust from home renovations and attempts to mitigate lead without proper training and precautions can expose a person to high levels of lead, which was used in paint until 1978 when it was banned. Depending on the source of the lead, mitigation may involve wet cleaning and air-drying of dust, completely sealing lead paint with a fresh paint job, and other strategies.
Replacement or renovations of walls or other features with lead paint may need to be done by licensed workers who follow the EPA's Renovate, Repair and Painting program rules. Many landlords in McDonough County are reluctant to deal with lead concerns. "It becomes very challenging to hold accountable these landlords when there's issues," Adams said. "I've worked with some, and they were awesome. And I've got others that will just - either (in) some situations, want the person out of the house, or they don't want to do anything. It becomes a follow-up game. A lot of times I get sent on to the State's Attorney's office, because they're in violation of the act then."
SB 2300 requires landlords or homeowners who have received mitigation notices to inform the current renters (lessees) or prospective purchasers with a specified written notice (a copy of the mitigation notice and inspection report), unless they have received a certificate of compliance. The amendment, which took effect on Jan. 1, now requires them to also provide the Department of Public Health with specified written notice of the sale.
SB550 requires schools and daycares to test their water for lead, and provides compliance deadlines. Buildings constructed prior to 1987 may have lead pipes, and pose a greater risk than those built later. Facilities built before Jan. 1, 1987 must have their water sampled, tested, by Dec. 31, 2017. Buildings constructed between Jan. 2, 1987, and Jan. 1, 2000, must have their water analyzed by Dec. 31, 2018.
The act also requires community water system owners or operators to develop and submit an inventory of all lead service lines, including those that are privately owned. According to Kent Cox, Macomb's water plant manager and interim Public Works director, none of Macomb's water mains have lead, but the service lines, which bring water from the mains to individual residences, often do. Privately-owned lead service lines can be found in older sections of town, with several radiating out from the downtown square. He named East Carroll, East Calhoun, Lafayette and Randolph streets as having "several of those."
Residents who live in older homes can find out whether their service lines are made of lead by taking a look near their water meters. Lead service line pipes come into homes through the foundation and connect to the water meter.
Cox said water system operators such as himself are required to add corrosion inhibitors to treated water to prevent it from corroding pipes and leaching lead into the drinking supply, such as what happened in Flint, Mich. They are also required by the EPA to regularly monitor for lead and other contaminants. Anyone with concerns about lead or who wish to sample or mitigate lead safely can call Chris Adams of the McDonough County Health Department from 7:30 a.m.-5 p.m., Monday-Thursday. For more information, visit www.epa.gov or www.cdc.gov.