House Study Committee Examines Childhood Lead Exposure

Cindy Morley

Friday, October 8th, 2021

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The House Study Committee on Childhood Lead Exposure held an informational hearing Wednesday on the dangers of exposure by young children, and learned about a program sponsored by the Department of Education that provides grants for districts to test for lead inside the schools. The committee, chaired by State Rep. Katie Dempsey (R-Rome) has held two previous meetings, and another one is planned for October 21.

In previous meetings, experts talked about the dangers of lead exposure, especially by children at a young age. According to testimony, children exposed to lead at a young age are at higher risk for physical, mental and behavioral problems as adults. And some children are more at risk than others.

Studies show lead poisoning is more prevalent in kids who live in older homes and rural areas, with lower access to healthcare. Race and ethnicity are factors as well, along with poverty.

Wednesday, Pat Schofill, Director of Facilities Services and Pupil Transportation at the Georgia Department of Education, spoke about a program that provides grants to schools wanting to test for lead. Elementary schools with Pre-K programs receive top priority for testing, followed by elementary schools without Pre-K programs. These are followed by middle schools and high schools.

Schools with more than 50 percent free lunches are a priority, along with schools that are housed in older buildings. According to Schofill, there are currently 2,000 schools in Georgia which occupy over 8,000 buildings. Of those 8,000 buildings, approximately 3,100 are older than 30 years and pose a high threat for lead exposure.

The department has funding for 800 schools to undergo the testing — so far 20 schools have enrolled in the program. While the grants cover the costs of testing and training, they do not cover mitigation costs.

According to Dempsey, the state needs to bring its standards for intervention in line with new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control. However, Dempsey said Dr. Kathleen Toomey, Department of Public Health Director, has talked to her about digging deeper.

“This has been discussed for a long time … We need to make sure we’re not missing a population of children that are exposed to these adverse reactions; make sure these really dreadful irreversible conditions are not impacting children,” Dempsey said following an earlier meeting of the committee.

Jac Capp, Chief of the Watershed Protection Branch of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, spoke about his department’s work sampling water in private homes and businesses for lead, and Dr. Eri Saikawa of Emory University spoke on lead contamination in soil.

In previous meetings, the committee has heard testimony from Callan Wells, health policy manager for GEEARS: Georgia Early Education Alliance for Ready Students, and Abby Mutic, PhD, director of the Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit at Emory’s Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing.

All experts tend to agree that prevention is the first best step. “Our goal through the freshwater grants is to stop childhood exposure to lead in water,” said Schofill.