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 and usually occurs over a long period of time. It can occur in people of any age group, but children are particularly susceptible.
Some symptoms appear to be minor changes at first glance. The Mayo Clinic lists effects such as irritability, loss of appetite, weight loss, sluggishness, and fatigue. Vomiting, developmental problems, and learning problems are more serious. Adults can also experience headaches, memory and concentration disorders, joint and muscle pain, and high blood pressure.
Where does it come from?
The CDC offers a guide to lead poisoning and its causes. The most common causes are environmental issues – and often you don't know or suspect they're there.
In the home are two important places to look, paint and pipes. Many homes built before 1978 used leaded paints that can flake off and turn to dust. The consumption of paint chips and the inhalation of this dust can lead to lead poisoning.
Older pipelines may contain parts made of lead that can vent it into the water supply. Children would then 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 in your home, such as toys and imported candy, can contain lead. Certain hobbies, such as stained glass, can also involve lead and should be handled carefully.
How do you find out if you are affected?
The only way to be sure is to get tested. 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 what to do 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, Thomas Largo of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services raised concerns about a 75% drop in blood level tests in April immediately after the COVID-19 shutdowns 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. Dr. Aparna Bole of Rainbow Babies & Children's Hospital, Cleveland University Hospitals, and Stephanie Yendell, Senior Epidemiologist for the Minnesota Department of Health, shared their concerns with KHN.
Bole said, "I am concerned about children in unsafe homes, even more during the pandemic because they are stuck there during quarantine." Yendell fears the economic impact of the pandemic will make matters worse. "When you've lost your job," she notes, "it becomes difficult to get new windows or even repaint."
The news is not all bad, however, and as 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 day care centers with a $ 1.9 million grant from the EPA.
The take away
Lead poisoning is a real problem for children, and COVID-19 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.