LA health workers fight lead poisoning in 'Promise Zone'

Chips and dust from old lead-based paint could poison young children, who are especially vulnerable to the lead toxin.
Chips and dust from old lead-based paint could poison young children, who are especially vulnerable to the lead toxin.
Chloe Wright/flickr Creative Commons

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Los Angeles health officials are ramping up education and testing for lead poisoning in the city's poorest neighborhoods, even though lead has been banned from paint since 1978.

They say lead exposure is still a major threat to children who live in old, dilapidated buildings in parts of Hollywood, East Hollywood, Koreatown, Pico Union and Westlake, the communities targeted in the latest effort.

Together, the areas make up L.A.’s Promise Zone, one of 13 impoverished areas around the country chosen by the Obama administration to get preferential treatment from federal agencies to address issues like public health.

Nationally, rates of lead poisoning are dropping. But in Los Angeles, officials are skeptical.

"Given the poverty levels and lack of health insurance and the age of housing, there should be higher levels of lead poisoning than are showing up," said Sally Richman of the city's Housing and Community Investment Department told the City Council's Housing Committee.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has set aside more than $900,000 in funds for three years of programming that will include outreach to groups living in the Promise Zone who do not regularly receive health care. They include immigrants in the country illegally and those who are "linguistically-isolated" such as Mayan dialect-speakers.

"If there was more rigorous testing of children in the area, (lead poisoning) scores might go up," Richman said. 

Lead exposure in children has been shown to cause developmental and behavioral problems.

The city is taking aim at lead poisoning on multiple fronts, said public health consultant Jeff Sanchez of Berkeley-based Impact Assessment. He's working on a project that would have L.A.'s building department educate contractors and their workers on ways to minimize lead dust during renovation jobs. 

Sanchez said that sanding and cutting can create paint flakes and chips that endanger children on the premises.

He said it's also important to make "sure that workers are aware that if they don’t change their clothes before going home they may actually bring lead hazards into their own homes and expose their families."