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Connecticut's Older Housing Stock: A Lead-Poisoning Risk?

lead_awareness_fair_hartford.jpg
Vanessa de la Torre
/
Connecticut Public Radio
Tracy Min Hung, right, a state public health epidemiologist, shows Molly Magoon a map she made showing incidences of childhood lead poisoning across Connecticut. Magoon works for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Some folks see chipped paint on windowsills and door frames of older Connecticut homes as rustic, New England charm. But it makes public health officials wary.

The U.S. banned lead-based paint for housing in 1978. By then, many homes in the state were already constructed.

“In Connecticut, 73 percent of the homes were built before 1980,” said Kimberly Ploszaj, an epidemiologist with the state Department of Public Health. “Pretty much three out of four homes could contain lead paint.”

Some homes are decades older: About 30 percent of Connecticut’s housing stock is pre-1950, Ploszaj said in a presentation Tuesday to public health workers and advocates at the state Legislative Office Building in Hartford.

Lead was added to paint, in part, for its durability. But the metal is toxic, and so the old paint can turn dangerous as it starts to break down. When lead-based paint deteriorates into paint chips and dust, it can get into the hands -- and mouths -- of curious, young children. Lead has a sweet taste.

In 2016, Connecticut had 2,000 confirmed cases of lead poisoning among children under age 6, state public health officials said. Cities with more impoverished households, such as Bridgeport, Hartford, New Haven and Waterbury, had higher incidences of childhood lead poisoning. Those cities also have a high percentage of older housing, according to the data.

The state noted the racial disparities: Black children, for instance, were 2.4 times as likely to be lead-poisoned than white children in 2016.

But lead exposure isn’t just a problem in the cities. The Department of Public Health presented a map of Connecticut, divided into all the different municipalities. A blue dot on a town meant at least one child had a confirmed case of lead poisoning -- and blue dots were scattered across the state.

“As much as we think it’s just an urban issue, it’s definitely also a rural issue,” Ploszaj said.

If chipped paint is ingested, doctors emphasize there is no safe level of lead. Lead toxicity can spread throughout the body, including the brain, said Dr. Erin Nozetz, a pediatrician at the Yale School of Medicine. That can lead to behavior problems and cognitive difficulties that become apparent when a child is learning how to read or problem-solve.

“If you look at children who have higher levels of lead,” Nozetz said Tuesday, “they’re just not doing as well when they’re starting school.”

State law requires that children get screened for lead poisoning twice by age 3, while their brains are in a crucial stage of development. But Ploszaj, the epidemiologist, said just over half of children get both screenings in that time frame.

Washing children’s hands and toys frequently is one way to help prevent lead exposure, health experts said. So is “wet wiping” -- using a damp cloth or mop to clean floors and windowsills, instead of a broom or vacuum that could spread lead toxins around.

Vanessa de la Torre is executive editor of the New England News Collaborative, a regional hub of nine public media stations producing news and in-depth storytelling throughout New England. Previously, Vanessa was a reporter for Connecticut Public and the public radio collaborative Sharing America, covering issues of race, identity and culture. Before joining the public media world, Vanessa wrote for newspapers such as the Hartford Courant, where her investigative storytelling on Hartford education won regional and national awards. She also was part of the Courant team that was a finalist for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Reporting. Vanessa grew up in El Centro, Calif., a desert town near the U.S.-Mexico border, and is a graduate of Princeton University. She received her master's degree from Stanford University’s Graduate Program in Journalism.

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