Fresno, like many communities across the nation, has been addressing lead exposure in children in meaningful ways for decades.
But in 2002, the story of the seven children of Mai Houa Yang riveted the attention of local, state and national officials. All of the children had become ill from exposure to the toxic metal.
How did they get sick?
Their rental house at 1403 E. Jensen Ave. had at one time been an unregulated “backyard” battery-recycling business. Even before the children were ill, there were obvious signs that something was wrong. The crops in the garden the family planted died. Their dogs drooled, had seizures and died.
When one of the children went to the doctor for a checkup, he was found to have 60 micrograms of lead in a deciliter of his blood. A person is considered poisoned at 10 micrograms.
This family was Fresno’s wakeup call that more had to be done to prevent lead poisoning. And though the city of Fresno and Fresno County, with help from the state and federal government, have made significant strides since then, we have to say it again: More work is required.
“Children living in the Lowell and Yokomi neighborhoods north of downtown Fresno have frighteningly high levels of lead in their blood, according to data from the California Department of Public Health.
“Nearly 14 percent of the children under 6 years old who were tested in Fresno’s 93701 ZIP code had levels of 5 micrograms per deciliter of blood or higher, which the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers elevated and of concern. Another eight ZIP codes in Fresno County – around downtown, in Kerman and Selma – also had high lead levels.”
What’s the next step?
The city and the county, along with local nonprofits, must redouble efforts to rein in lead exposure and help protect families.
For government leaders, this means providing the funds to continue outreach and lead-abatement programs. That will require both general-fund expenditures and landing state and federal grants.
For example, a three-year, $2.4 million federally funded lead-abatement program helped 122 houses and apartments in Fresno, Jennifer Clark, development and resource management director for the city, told Lee. The city plans to apply for more funding, Clark said, but the competition is stiff.
Fresno should be able to make a compelling case to the Trump administration for additional help. The percentage of children in the Lowell and Yokomi neighborhoods with high lead levels in their blood is nearly three times the percentage of children in Flint, Michigan, during that city’s nationally chronicled water-contamination crisis.
Fresno County is fortunate to have Dr. Ken Bird as its health officer. Since taking the position, he has championed health issues while also talking bluntly about challenges facing our community.
Said Bird on Wednesday: “Given what we know, particularly about the older housing in this neighborhood, the findings are not surprising, and, in fact, the percentage of children tested that exhibit blood lead levels over 5 micrograms per deciliter have actually decreased over the last six years, largely due to surveillance and follow-up activities.”
The role for nonprofits is to get the word out – in English, Spanish, Hmong and as many other languages as possible.
Finally, Fresno Mayor Lee Brand has promised to improve relations between City Hall and Fresno County leaders. If and when city and county officials hold a joint meeting, the subject of lead exposure should be on their agenda.
ABOUT LEAD POISONING
Children should be tested by a doctor for lead in their blood at ages 1 and 2 and anytime up to 6, if not previously tested, according to the Fresno County Health Department. Lead is especially dangerous for children under age 6 because their rapidly growing and developing bodies absorb more lead than adults do.
Lead is a toxic metal that can damage the nervous system, kidneys and reproductive system. It can interfere with growth and development or impair mental functions.
In the United States, the most common sources of lead are from soil or from chipping or peeling lead-based paint, which was common in older homes but has been restricted. Other potential sources include imported ceramic pottery, candies and foods, and traditional home remedies.
Fresno County’s Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program.
Phone: (559) 600-3590 FAX: (559) 600-7725
Hours: Monday-Friday 8 a.m to 5 p.m.
National Lead Information Center
Call and speak with a specialist Monday-Friday, 5 a.m. to 3 p.m. (except federal holidays) at (800) 424-LEAD (5323).