Mobile screening unit tests children for unsafe levels of lead

Patrick Yeagle

The Peoria Health Department is hosting a mobile lead testing van this week to help catch lead poisoning in children.

"Sometimes it's hard for people to get to us," said Roberta Burns, lead nurse case manager for the health department. "We're going to come to them."

The Blue Cross/Blue Shield I-Care van was at Harrison School in South Peoria on Monday, testing children for lead poisoning in one of the city's lowest-income zip codes, 61605.

Burns said Peoria's poorest neighborhoods are most at risk because they tend to encompass older homes with lead paint.

"We have a lot of families living in those homes and they have young children," Burns said. "Parents don't realize that's where it's coming from because their child looks well. The only way we're going to know is to test them."

Children like to eat lead paint, Burns said, because it has a sweet taste.

"Young children, everything goes in their mouth," Burns said. "It only takes a very small amount of lead getting into their system."

Dr. Brian Bostwick said there is no "safe" level of lead in the blood, adding that with any detectable level of lead in the blood, a child can lose at least seven IQ points.

Bostwick is an assistant professor of clinical pediatrics at the University of Illinois College of Medicine in Peoria, and he serves on the health department's lead task force.

"Part of the problem is getting physicians and health care providers aware of the problem," Bostwick said. "You'd think it would be a no-brainer."

There are no tell-tale symptoms of lead poisoning in children, according to Bostwick.

"That's what's scary," Bostwick said. "Until levels are extremely high, you're not going to see the headaches and the vision problems."

In addition to offering lead screenings year round, the health department also offers lead risk evaluation in homes, paid for by $3 million in federal grant money.

"We still have the distinction of having the highest lead poisoning rate in Illinois," said Curt Fenton, director of Community Health & Prevention.

The deadline to use funds under the current grant is the end of October, Fenton said, but the department is applying for a second grant at the same amount.

Grant money has been used to evaluate and fix 158 Peoria homes so far, but an estimated 10,000 homes in Peoria still need to be tested, according to Fenton.

"We are on track to do our projected 240 homes by the deadline," Fenton said. "We may even be able to do more."

Bostwick said every child in Peoria County should be tested for lead exposure.

"If your child is not being screened for lead at a doctor's appointment, ask your physician why," Bostwick said. "If they can't answer that question, then (your child) should be screened for lead."

Consisting of a simple finger prick, the test is free and takes only a few minutes. No appointment is necessary.

For more information, call the Peoria Health Department at (309) 679-6051 or visit www.pcchd.org.

Patrick Yeagle can be reached at (309) 686-3251 or pyeagle@pjstar.com.