MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WSFA) - Last year, pediatricians across Alabama discovered elevated lead levels in more than 1,000 children. Most cases stemmed from the dust of lead paint in homes built prior to the mid 1970s.
“It’s definitely not a rare occurrence in our clinic,” stated Dr. Elizabeth Dawson, a pediatrician at Charles Henderson Child Health. “You can’t see lead dust, it’s not something that you can just go, ‘oh there it is, let me clean it up’. It can be very insidious in how it affects families.”
According to the Alabama Department of Public Health, Montgomery, Pike, Dallas, Houston, Jefferson, Baldwin and Calhoun counties have reported the highest elevated blood levels in the state over the last few years.
Alabama’s public health officer, Scott Harris, says the consequences of ingesting lead paint are detrimental for children.
“It literally lowers their IQ and it’s irreversible. Once that happens it never can be fixed,” Harris explained.
Instances of elevated lead levels are often detected around the time children begin crawling. Dust from the lead paint settles in the floor and on household items. Children often ingest the lead dust as they develop motor skills and hand to mouth contact.
Dawson’s practice begins testing children’s blood for elevated lead levels at nine months and again at two years.
“Their brain is still developing and lead has an exponential effect,” she explained.
If a child tests positive for elevated lead levels, public health launches an investigation. If the lead exposure stems from construction work that didn’t meet the standards in the Alabama Lead Reduction Act, little can be done.
“They just go to the next house and do the same thing again, and then they go to the next county and they do the same thing again,” Harris remarked. “We don’t have any teeth in the law in Alabama that allows us to prevent this from happening.”
State records suggest a marginal number of licensed contractors are certified in lead paint abatement. If passed, the legislation would allow public health to levy a civil penalty.
“This just says if we cite them, then we can force them to take the lead education training on the first offense, with a second offense we can fine them $250, and then the third offense we can fine up to $2,500,” said Harris.
The fines are levied at that rate per day until the issue is remedied.
Similar bills have been presented over the last three legislative sessions and rarely made it to a full vote. Some organizations have expressed concern with enforcement and the fines involved.
Proponents say it’s needed and point to other Southern states who levy much higher daily fines.
“It’s upsetting anytime we see a child with this because the some of the effects are irreversible,” Dawson acknowledged. “…I know there have been some cases I’ve been involved with where people weren’t following the guidelines and then the children were exposed.”
Harris says lead poisoning is a health equity issue impacting children in low income families.
“It disproportionality affects African American children. The unfortunate reason for that is because African American people are much more likely to have lower income and therefore they’re going to live in older housing.”
Montgomery Rep. Reed Ingram and Sen. Bobby Singleton, who represents District 24, are sponsoring the bill in their respective chambers.
This legislation only applies to contractors, not the general public. You can read a copy of the bill here.
The ADPH has a wealth of information on reducing lead exposure and lead paint abatement here.
“We need widespread public support by people who recognize this and are willing to stand up and say we don’t need to let this happen anymore,” Harris added. “A child who is just behaving like a normal child and ends up with intellectual disability that was completely preventable - we just can’t allow that to happen.”