It is said to have did in the Romans, and it inspired some of the most memorable public service announcements of the 1970s. It — lead poisoning — persists to sicken people, mostly kids, to this day, and is now the target of a new initiative by the Ulster County Health Department.
The “Get The Lead Out” campaign, not to be confused with a local radio station’s nightly three-in-a-row of Robert Plant’s old band, will use a $1.3 million over five years grant from the state Department of Health to educate the populace on the dangers of lead poisoning and the importance of having kids screened for it and train people to remove it from older homes. Lead was a very common ingredient in paint prior to 1978, and any home built prior to that is likely to pose a danger.
Dr. LaMar Hasbrouck, commissioner of both the county health and the county mental health departments, unveiled the program at a press conference held Friday at the Everette Hodge Community Center in Midtown Kingston.
“We are here to address a very significant health problem, and that is lead poisoning,” said Hasbrouck, ticking off the effects as headaches, irritability, poor attention span, reduced IQ, slow speech development, hyperactivity, weight loss and anemia, among others. Lead targets the brain and nervous system and can cause lifelong damage.
Hasbrouck said the initiative got started when the state health department noticed a “hot spot” of confirmed cases in Ulster. According to the state Department of Health, said Hasbrouck, there are approximately 20 confirmed cases of lead poisoning in the county every year, and that the problem is very likely underreported. “We can map out where these children are,” said Hasbrouck.
Hasbrouck noted lead poisoning is no respecter of wealth — while it is often linked to poverty, as the poor are more likely to live in pre-1978, non-updated housing, the real connector is being around older buildings. “The risk for lead poisoning is not about poverty. The risk for lead poisoning is not about socioeconomic status,” said Hasbrouck. “Rather, it is about living or playing or being exposed over a long period of time to old structures — old homes, old buildings, old playground facilities, which had been built before 1978. The older the home you hang out in, the higher the risk.”
“Get the Lead Out” has three prongs, the commissioner said. First, is raising awareness of the problem and educating people about it. The next is training contractors and landlords on how to safely remove lead contamination — going at it with a scraper yourself will just make it worse, Hasbrouck said. Part of the state money will go to providing free training on how to properly abate the lead; Cornell Cooperative Extension of Ulster County will schedule and conduct the training sessions, so as to build the capacity for local cleanups. Prong three is providing the materials needed for cleanups: mops, buckets, facemasks, rags, gloves and testing.
Lee Reidy, executive director of Cornell Cooperative Extension of Ulster County, said the agency will also handle publicity and promotion of the campaign, formally known as the Lead Primary Prevention Program.
“We just got the contracts signed on this so we’re looking at having our first training at the end of June,” said Reidy.
Hasbrouck and Reidy were joined by Rural Ulster Preservation Co. Executive Director Kevin O’Connor. The commissioner said RUPCO, which administers the 1,600 Housing Choice (formerly known as Section 8) voucher program, will be a vital partner in the effort. As part of the program, RUPCO conducts annual inspections of the housing in which the voucher recipients are housed.
Also on hand was Capt. Jim Brunner of the Kingston Fire Department’s Building and Safety Division, described as a “key partner” by Hasbrouck.
Hasbrouck said there are immediate steps people can take if they’re concerned about their kids being exposed to lead. He suggested doing a visual inspection, looking at window ledges and for cracked and chipping paint, or dust settled around baseboards. If something seems amiss, they can arrange for blood testing via their primary care physician and the county can send an inspector out to test for lead. He also suggested not letting kids play in possibly-contaminated backyard dirt; rather, put together a sandbox for them.
“We’re going to put a spotlight on the problem, but more importantly, we are going to eliminate any excuses to address the problem,” said Hasbrouck. “We have the ‘lead ed hotline,’ if you will. There will be no excuse to allow our kids to be exposed to the toxicity of lead poisoning.”
For more information, call the health department at (845) 340-3160 or via e-mail at LeadEd@co.ulster.ny.us.