House Study Committee on Childhood Lead Exposure

State Rep. Katie Dempsey, R-Rome, chairs the 2021 House Study Committee on Childhood Lead Exposure.

Children exposed to lead at a young age are at higher risk for physical, mental and behavioral problems as adults, a panel of experts told members of a Georgia House study committee.

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.

“Good nutrition can actually fight lead poisoning but undernourished children have a more difficult time,” said Christy Kuriatnyk, director of the state Department of Public Health’s Georgia Healthy Homes and Lead Poisoning Prevention Program.

State Rep. Katie Dempsey, R-Rome, is chairing the House Study Committee on Childhood Lead Exposure. The first meeting was Sept. 2 and the next is scheduled for Monday.

Dempsey said during the initial meeting that the committee will take testimony twice more in October and may meet a fifth time to finalize recommendations for action during the 2022 legislative session.

The state needs to bring its standards for intervention in line with new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control. However, Dempsey said DPH Director Dr. Kathleen Toomey 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.”

The four speakers presented studies showing that early exposure makes young adults more likely to be incarcerated, experience homelessness and require public assistance.

Medical problems such as chronic kidney disease have been tracked — along with attention deficit disorders, hyperactivity and loss of IQ.

Lead exposure alone is not a predictor, but it’s a “significant risk factor,” according to Dr. Robert J. Geller, a professor at Emory University School of Medicine specializing in pediatric medical toxicology and director of the Georgia Poison Center.

While lead causes significant brain damage at very high levels, Geller said, it’s rare now due to efforts to eliminate it from paints, gasoline and other products.

“More common is intellectual impairment at low levels. There is no safe level,” he said.

Prevention, the experts agreed, is the first best step. After that comes individual intervention with various state services. The last resort is chelation therapy to remove heavy metals from the blood. Treatments are expensive and the benefits uncertain.

Geller offered several concrete suggestions he said could make a difference.

A tax break could encourage landlords to renovate homes built before 1978, when lead paint was the popular choice. Lead water pipes also are an issue in older communities and not so easily replaced, but water filters are available.

Results of lead blood level tests must be reported to the DPH, but Geller said calculations indicate some children are falling through the cracks. Parents may skip well-baby checkups and don’t always realize how important it is to take them for bloodwork ordered by pediatricians. The in-office tests available are not accurate.

He said he’d also like to see all women of childbearing age get regularly tested, to catch problems before they become pregnant and pass the lead on to the child.

The committee also 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.

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