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Dealing with heavy metal issues

Organized by Get The Lead Out, FNA, experts give presentations and inform River Wards residents how to stay clean from lead dust

Talking lead: Participants in the lead panel speak at the community meeting. LOGAN KRUM / STAR PHOTO

By Logan Krum

The first in a series of Q&A panels intended to inform River Ward residents about lead and lead dust in the soil was held Tuesday, July 25.

At the session, Dr. Kevin Osterhoudt made one thing clear: There is a lower amount of lead in our blood now than there was a few decades ago.

Children ages 1 or 2 between 1976 and 1980 had an average blood lead level of 15, Osterhoudt said. Now, it’s 1.5.

The session was a joint effort between the informal group Get the Lead Out and the Fishtown Neighbors Association. The Rev. Shawn Hyska volunteered space in First Presbyterian Church at 418 E. Girard Ave.

Osterhoudt has 23 years of experience working with child poisoning, and serves as the medical director of the Poison Control Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Also on the panel were Richard Pepino, deputy director for the Center of Excellence in Environmental Toxicology at the University of Pennsylvania; Claire Gavin, a retired toxicologist with her PhD; and Jana Curtis, who raised awareness to the issue after her daughter was impacted by lead.

The general takeaway of the panel was lead is everywhere and unavoidable, but precautions can certainly be taken to prevent extended exposure.

Gavin talked about how lead binds to particles that are two microns big (a micron is one millionth of a meter). She said lead has a half-life of 700 years, meaning it takes that long for lead to lose half its radioactivity. In layman’s terms, it means lead sticks around for awhile.

Curtis is a self-taught professional at keeping her house as clean as possible. She advised washing hands often, keeping floors clean by mopping and vacuuming, not wearing shoes in the house and keeping windows closed, especially if construction is happening nearby.

“Philadelphia is a city of firsts, and I believe we could be the first city to eradicate lead poisoning,” Curtis said. “And given how many people have come out tonight, we have a chance to be the first community.”

Here are some other questions asked:

What steps should be taken by families that are expecting a baby?

Lead can be passed to the baby through the placenta. Osterhoudt said there is no specific treatment to prevent lead in fetuses, and that the best method for keeping the baby strong is good prenatal care, good nutrition and reducing exposure to lead. He also encouraged mothers to wash their hands before breastfeeding.

Am I at risk walking around the city inhaling lead?

Gavin said that walking around the city will get soil on your shoes, but you will not stir it up to inhale it as you walk. When the weather gets hot, dry and windy at the end of the summer, dust particles can become airborne, and inhalation becomes possible, or can blow through windows and become incorporated in house dust.

Is it worse to inhale or ingest lead?

Osterhoudt and Pepino disagreed on this one. “We just don’t take in so many [particles of lead] through breathing that they can be absorbed from,” Osterhoudt said. He noted that if something lead-heavy like pre-1950s lead house paint is consumed by a child, that has enough to make them sick.

Pepino noted that lead entering the body through inhalation will lead to quicker access to the circulatory system, whereas lead entering through ingestion could more easily be passed.

How can children be tested?

Children are highly vulnerable to lead around 1 or 2 years of age, and should be tested twice before turning 3. Getting tested is as simple as asking your pediatrician.

Pepino also advised purchasing home lead test kits, which are sold cheaply at The Home Depot and Lowe’s.

The program closed with comments from Maurice Sampson, the east Pennsylvania director of Clean Water Action. Sampson announced a pilot program that will spread lead hazard awareness. It will help people learn if there is lead in their house, and what to do about it if there is.

“What you do here is really going to help others in dealing with this issue,” he said. “I have never been in a community that is so squarely in the crosshairs of the press.”

The next panel is scheduled for Tuesday, Aug. 8 at First Presbyterian Church from 7 to 9 p.m. This panel will focus on soil tests in the area. Representatives from the USEPA, ATSDR and the Philadelphia Health Department will talk. For frequent updates and information, join the Get the Lead OUT: Riverwards Philadelphia Facebook group.

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