The first widespread testing for lead exposure among Spokane children found that 6 percent of those tested had ingested measurable amounts of toxic lead.
Workers found that 32 children among 500 tested had lead in their blood, but only two of them had levels high enough to be of concern under federal health standards.
The results in Spokane are consistent with previous tests in Washington state that found fewer than 1 percent of children have lead levels at or above the federal standard for concern of 10 micrograms per deciliter of blood.
Exposure to lead, especially by young children, can cause a range of problems, including learning difficulties and brain damage.
“Even low levels of lead in children can lead to neural problems,” said Kat Hall, environmental health program director for the Lands Council in Spokane.
The Lands Council is in the latter stages of a two-year program to sample children’s blood for lead toxicity in Spokane under a grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The testing in Spokane has focused on neighborhoods where the number of old homes likely to have lead paint is high and where children might be exposed to other sources of lead in the environment. Testing has been done at community centers, churches and Head Start programs.
About 80 percent of the homes in Spokane were built before lead paint was banned in 1978.
Last week, Tauran Foster, a single father, brought his 3-year-old daughter, Electra Hartless, to the Head Start offices at 2310 N. Monroe St. to have her checked.
“I figured we might as well get it done and be safe,” he said. Electra appeared fascinated by the process, which involved a pinprick on her finger to take a drop of blood that was measured in a specially calibrated machine purchased for the program. Her lead level was below the machine’s lowest readable amount of 3.3 micrograms per deciliter.
Some of the children were frightened, including one girl who wailed when the test was done.
Teri Madden brought her grandson, Matthew, 5, after showing him that the test involved touching a small needle to his finger. “We practiced at home,” she said. “He’s not scared.”
Matthew said, “I know it’s not going to hurt.”
Caitlan Seaman brought her two small daughters for testing because the Lands Council’s machine required only a small drop of blood and not a full blood draw that is needed for a test in a doctor’s office, she said.
“This is a safety precaution,” Seaman said. “We live in an older home on the North Side.”
One of the two children tested who had elevated lead levels apparently ingested lead by swallowing dirt outside their homes, Hall said. Lead from old paint may have accumulated along the outer walls and gotten mixed in with the dirt, she said.
Owners of older homes are advised not to sand suspected lead paint, and to contain chips from scraping and remove them from the home. Lead in paint can break down into a chalk or dust, so it’s important to keep dust wiped up in older homes, experts say.
The city of Spokane has a grant program to help homeowners eliminate or cover lead paint. Homes built before 1950 have the highest likelihood of containing lead paint.
Other possible sources of lead are toys and environmental pollution, including sediments in the Spokane River.
The Washington Department of Health cautions against eating more than one fish meal a month from the river inside Spokane city limits, and it recommends trimming away fatty portions of the fish, where lead concentrates.
Officials say no fish should be consumed upstream of Upriver Dam.
Beaches along the river in Spokane Valley also may have lead contamination that can get on children’s hands and clothing if they play there, Hall said.
The Lands Council has a history of involvment in lead contamination issues in the region, including an effort in recent years to educate people who use the river about the hazards.