WATERLOO, Iowa --- Proposed funding cuts for lead poisoning prevention programs mobilized area advocates to Capitol Hill last week.
Brenda Music and her son, Sean, of Independence hope they put a face on the issue. Sean, 11, suffers learning disabilities after ingesting lead as a toddler.
Both spoke during the advocacy day March 6 sponsored by the National Safe and Healthy Housing Coalition, and met with U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Health Subcommittee, and U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Waterloo. They also spoke with staff members of U.S. Rep. Tom Latham and U.S. Rep. Leonard Boswell.
Also invited to attend was Mike Prideaux, lead program coordinator with the Black Hawk County Health Department.
According to the housing coalition, the final appropriations bill for fiscal 2012 provides about $2 million for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Healthy Homes and Lead Poisoning Prevention Program. That is down from $29 million in fiscal 2011. The president has requested the elimination of money for fiscal 2013.
Nearly a half million children rely on the services of this program, which funds 35 state health departments and their local partners to monitor blood-lead screening and respond to every child who has an elevated blood-lead level with a home inspection and referrals for medical intervention and lead remediation. The program also prevents the disease through housing policies, community education and outreach.
By agreeing to this level of funding, Congress is abandoning low-income, African American and Latino children who are disproportionately impacted by lead, the coalition's website states. The organization is calling to reallocate dollars in fiscal 2012 and restore the program in fiscal 2013 to $29 million.
The state of Iowa received almost $683,000 from CDC in fiscal 2011, and $594,000 in the current year. Currently 7 percent of Iowa children are lead poisoned, compared to the national average of 1.6 percent, according to the Iowa Department of Public Health Lead Bureau website.
Waterloo has "more than our fair share," said Prideaux, who has been involved since 1988. Lead-based paint was banned for residential use in 1978, but much of Waterloo's housing stock is older. Pre-1950s homes pose the most risk, as deteriorating paint is more highly concentrated with lead, he said.
While good efforts have greatly reduced the number of incidents, lead poisoning remains a significant environmental public health threat.
"In the past six months, I've had four of the most severe cases I've ever seen just here in Waterloo," he said. "This is such a preventable occurrence that creates disability."
The worst came in August when a 5-year-old girl was diagnosed with a blood lead level of 92. A level of less than 10 is considered normal. Prideaux is working with the child's Head Start nurse and teacher to get an idea of what educational accommodations are needed. She is in a self-contained classroom and requires a one-on-one associate.
Other cases included a child in June with a blood level of 60, and two children in November with blood lead levels of 56 and 51. All four required chelation therapy, the administration of an oral agent to help the body flush out lead through the urine and kidneys. The process is usually recommended for blood lead levels higher than 45.
Chances are lead-poisoned children won't do as well as they grow older, which inhibits a push for excellence with No Child Left Behind and related programs, Prideaux said.
"Especially when they have to start doing tasks that require higher brain function, abstract thinking, mathematics, those kinds of things," he said.
Sean Music was 3 when he was diagnosed at a level 40 from two summers playing in his back yard. Deteriorating lead paint was turning to dust on the exterior of the Music home and floated in the air and settled on toys. Even without new lead exposure, his blood level took four years to drop less than 10. His last test showed he is at a level four.
He is now on medication to control attention deficit hyperactivity disorder tendencies, Brenda Music said. He also has concentration issues and is "very, very forgetful."
Sean underwent two years of special education preschool, and educators worked to get him enrolled in the regular school system. He goes through Individualized Education Programs through the Area Agency 267. Instead of regular school conferences, Sean's include a special education teacher, counselor and principal, she said.
"He struggles with reading and writing but, oddly enough, is in a talented and gifted math program, so that's kind of cool for us," Brenda Music said.
Without available resources, Sean's case could have been worse, or his younger brother, a baby at the time, could have been poisoned, she said.
Funding cuts could mean "thousands of children like Sean are not going to have that help," she said. "All the symptoms are not there unless damage is already done."
Brenda Music founded Iowa Parents Against Lead Poisoning, speaks publicly on the issue and is setting up a closed online forum for lead-poisoned children to connect.
"People have stereotyped lead poisoning to be the poor, unemployed, ghetto-type living places, and that's just simply not true," she said.