There’s No Safe Level of Lead Exposure: Stories of Lead Poisoning and Prevention

Date posted: 
Wednesday, October 2, 2019 - 17:15
Blog poster: 
Julianna Rohn
Email of Blog Poster: 

Julianna Rohn is an intern with the National Environmental Health Association (NEHA) Program and Partnership Development team in Washington, DC. She is a student at the University of Colorado Boulder, studying sociology, political science, and public health.

be a lead superhero comic style graphicWhen Tabitha Williams took her daughter to the emergency room in early 2016, she thought it was a regular asthma attack. When they arrived, however, and her daughter became unresponsive, it was clear that it was more than just asthma. Her daughter had been exposed to lead from the dust in their house and it had aggravated her existing condition to a dangerous level. Williams’ daughter was treated and survived but their story is just one of the many that families experience with children who are exposed to lead. Lead poisoning, be it through exposure to lead-based paint, old water piping systems, or lead in the soil that children play in, can have detrimental impacts on a child’s physical and mental development throughout their life.

In recent years, lead poisoning has been increasingly on parents’ minds, but few have access to the proper information to help mitigate risk. It is the responsibility of the environmental health workforce, then, to assess and address the impact of lead exposure on children’s health and to ensure that reduction and prevention efforts are accessible to parents. My longstanding interest in the effects of the environment on our health, especially that of children, lead me to my internship with the NEHA this fall. Much of my role within the organization is to catalog existing research on children’s environmental health and establish gaps in the literature to better determine the role of the environmental health workforce in preventing such outcomes.

I had the pleasure of attending the Association of Maternal & Child Health Programs’ third meeting of the Maternal and Child Environmental Health Collaborative Improvement and Innovation Network (MCEH CoIIN) on September 18–19, 2019. CoIIN consists of nine multidisciplinary state teams and enables them to collaborate to address childhood lead exposure among their populations. The meeting brought together representatives from each of these teams for storyboard presentations, storytelling and policy workshops, and panels with representatives from federal agencies. Each discussion highlighted the importance of effective communication—through storytelling, public education, or data analysis—to ensure better health outcomes for children affected by lead.

Dr. Jim Winship of Beechwood True guided us through a workshop on the importance of using effective storytelling to communicate with diverse audiences. “For an audience that might be skeptical of your message, look for common ground…connect lead effects with [children’s] potential, and that’s where you’ll find relatability,” he said. It’s important for environmental health professionals to find common ground to provide a pathway for dialogue with the communities they want to engage in.

Until someone personally experiences the hardships associated with lead poisoning, it might be difficult to convince them that the prioritization of lead exposure reduction efforts is worthwhile. Sharing stories and tailoring communication to each audience—whether that’s fellow members of the environmental health workforce, policymakers with a bustling agenda, or a single parent balancing everything on their plate at once—can help us reach and inspire our target audiences to act.

The CoIIN team from Alabama presented on their public education efforts, recognizing the importance of empowering parents with the information and resources necessary to protect their children from lead exposure. I loved the poster they developed for public education—with bright colors and a superhero theme, it attracts children and educates them about lead-safe habits. Similar campaigns were developed for parents, too. Banners placed on the tops of gas pumps (gas toppers) provided quick facts about childhood lead poisoning in the home, as well as ways that parents can be empowered to act such as getting their paint tested for lead and making sure that kids wash their hands after playing outside.

"We have data, case stories, successes…but we all still need different implementations to motivate change,” said Jane Taylor from the National Institute for Children’s Health Quality. Data are important for communication and using statistics and science to back up calls for policy implementation and behavioral change make those efforts more legitimate. NEHA awarded Louisiana with the Children’s Environmental Health Matters Award for using data to determine the best days to visit their lead-testing clinics and for increasing screening rates. Communicating these data to partners and residents helps prove the sustainability of the program and the importance of their work.

Communities in each CoIIN state, faced with the daunting challenge of lead poisoning, require innovative and customized solutions. The environmental health workforce plays an essential role in lead exposure prevention through assessment, policy development, and assurance. Our positions on the ground in the communities we serve give us unique leverage in ensuring healthful environments for all. There is no safe level of lead and until all children in our communities are 100% lead-free, our roles within the environmental health workforce remain pertinent as ever.

Photograph of ​Dr. Natasha DeJarnett and Christine Ortiz-Gumina presenting the Louisiana Team with the Children’s Environmental Health Matters Award.
​Dr. Natasha DeJarnett and Christine Ortiz-Gumina present the Louisiana Team with the Children’s Environmental Health Matters Award.

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Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect NEHA policy, endorsement, or action, and NEHA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.  

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