During the COVID-19 pandemic, preventive medical checkups for many diseases fell by the wayside, raising concerns among doctors about untreated patients. One particularly alarming trend is a massive decline in lead poisoning testing in children.
What is lead poisoning?
Lead poisoning is caused by the build up of lead in the bloodstream, usually over a long period of time. It can occur in people of all ages, but children are particularly susceptible.
Some symptoms seem minor at first glance. Lead poisoning can lead to irritability, loss of appetite, weight loss, sluggishness, and fatigue, according to the Mayo Clinic. More serious symptoms include vomiting, developmental problems, and learning problems. Adults can also have headaches, memory and concentration problems, joint and muscle pain, and high blood pressure.
Where does it come from?
The most common causes are environmental – and often you don't know or suspect the lead is present, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines in their guide to lead poisoning.
There are two important places in the home to look for lead, paint and pipes. Many homes built before 1978 have leaded paint that can flake off and turn to dust. Consuming paint chips or breathing in this dust can lead to lead poisoning.
Older pipelines may contain parts made of lead that can get into the water supply. Children can be exposed to lead every time they drink tap water, brush their teeth, and bathe. This is a common problem in many older neighborhoods across the country.
Finally, items found around the house, such as toys and imported candy, can contain lead. Certain hobbies, such as stained glass, may involve lead, and materials should be handled carefully.
How do you find out if you are affected?
The only way to be sure is by testing. People can be tested for blood lead levels, while buildings can be tested for contamination in areas like paint and water. The CDC provides guidance on how to get tested and how to reduce the risk in your home, including replacing contaminated items and sealing lead paint behind special coatings.
How is COVID-19 involved?
In an interview with Kaiser Health News, Michigan's Department of Health and Human Services Thomas Largo raised concerns about a 75% drop in blood level tests in April immediately after the COVID-19 shutdown began. Without blood tests showing elevated blood levels, children will not be treated and their surroundings will not be tested or corrected.
Environmental causes are a particular concern while COVID-19 restrictions exist.
"I am concerned about children in unsafe shelters, especially during the pandemic, because they are stuck there during quarantine," said Dr. Aparna Bole of Rainbow Babies and Children's Hospital at Cleveland University Hospitals told Kaiser Health News. Stephanie Yendell, senior epidemiologist for the Minnesota Department of Health, agreed that the economic impact of the pandemic is making the situation worse.
"When you've lost your job," she said, "it becomes difficult to get new windows or even repaint."
The news isn't all bad. As the states reopen, they are working to ensure that the lead risk is taken seriously. Michigan, for example, is already planning to partner with schools and daycare with a $ 1.9 million grant from the Environmental Protection Agency.
The take away
Lead poisoning is a real problem for children and the COVID-19 crisis has resulted in a dramatic decrease in the number of tests being performed. If you notice any of the above symptoms, or if you have any other cause for concern, contact your child's doctor as soon as possible.