There are neighborhoods in San Antonio where a high percentage of children are testing positive for lead poisoning. Lead was eliminated from paint and gasoline decades ago but the toxic element continues to turn up in blood tests of children. And data obtained via Texas Open Records requests shows that lead poisoning continues to be a major health problem for children in San Antonio.
At the Robert B. Green pediatric clinic in downtown San Antonio two-year old Lonnie Romo is here for his check-up.
And that includes a finding out if he has lead in his blood.
Doctor Ryan Van Ramshorst asks Lonnie’s parents some routine questions.
"Does he put things in his mouth like soil or clay?"
Contaminated dirt around a house can be a source of lead poisoning.
The Romos lives in a brand new apartment, so it’s unlikely that old lead based paint could be a problem.
But to be certain lead isn’t in Lonnie’s system the doctor orders a blood test.
"It’ll be a blood test and I think we’ll do it today if you guys don’t mind"
The test means a vein blood draw – and that can get loud.
Lonnie’s parents try to soothe him during the ordeal. It’s something that one everyone in the room would have liked to have skipped but checking for lead exposure is critically important.
Dr. Van Ramhorst: “Medicaid with the Texas Health Step Program requires that you test at age one and age two. It’s a higher risk for the children but I have found higher lead levels in people with commercial insurance who are higher income. That’s why we do it in everyone routinely.”
Texas does not mandate all children get a lead blood test but 11 other states and the District of Columbia do. Some other states require tests for children who live in high risk areas. In Texas outside of the Medicaid mandate lead testing is basically up to the doctor.
“At our clinic here – we screen everybody,” he said.
According to federal guidelines five micrograms per deciliter of blood is the point where lead poisoning begins and that’s the level when the Center For Disease Control suggests “public health action”
At five micrograms children begin to show diminished IQ, aggression, hyperactivity and behavior disorders.
Doctor Van Ramshorst said that’s why routine testing for lead poisoning is such a serious issue.
“There is no safe lead level for children,” he said.
“It is absolutely a public health issue for children,” said Colleen Bridger is the director of the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District.
“Looking at elevated blood lead levels is one of the things that we do to make sure that our children aren’t adversely affected,” she said.
Bridger says dealing with the legacy of lead in our man made environment is an ongoing problem that mainly affects certain areas; older neighborhoods with homes built before 1978. That’s when lead based paint was banned.
Despite the known health threats of lead poisoning in children it remains unknown how big a problem is on the national and local levels.
The best was to monitor whether there’s a lead problem in San Antonio is to look at the results of the thousands of children, like Lonnie, who were tested.
Those results are required to be sent to the Texas Department of State Health Services and categorized by zip codes.
After filing a Texas Open Records request Texas Public Radio was able obtain the data and discovered that there are a number of zip codes in San Antonio that show a percent of children testing positive for lead poisoning at levels much higher than the national and state average.
The national average for children who test at 5 and higher micro grams per deciliter of blood is 2.5 percent. In Texas it’s 2.6 percent.
In San Antonio in 2016 there were 17 zip codes that surpassed the state average.
There were two zip codes that are 11 percent.
They are 78203 and 78212.
78203 is just east of the Alamo Dome downtown to the Pittman Sullivan Park area over to St. Philip's College.
78212 is covers north of near downtown including the neighborhoods of Alta Vista, Tobin Hill and Norhmoor.
The question is what kind of snapshot are we getting of the lead poison problem in San Antonio with this data.
Health Director Colleen Bridger says we need to keep in mind that data set is based on only the children who are tested and they are a high risk group.
“How do we know if 28 kids tested is a lot of kids or not a lot of kids?“
That being noted, Bridger said it’s clear more needs to be done.
“we need to get more parents asking for their children’s blood lead to be tested. We need to get more parents to agree to participate in the environmental assessment that can identify the source of lead,“ she said.
And more pediatricians need to be willing to ask for more lead blood test – especially if that child lives in a high risk zip code.