Housing Blight

High levels of lead still detected in Fresno children’s blood

Peeling paint and mold in the bathroom window frame of a Fresno apartment in February 2016. Blighted housing in Fresno is a risk factor for children’s exposure to lead.
Peeling paint and mold in the bathroom window frame of a Fresno apartment in February 2016. Blighted housing in Fresno is a risk factor for children’s exposure to lead. Fresno Bee file photo

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.

“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,” said Dr. Ken Bird, Fresno County health officer.

The California Department of Public Health reported data of children’s exposure to lead in about one-fourth of the state’s ZIP codes.

The high levels of lead in children’s blood in Fresno was highlighted in a Reuters story Wednesday that was based on the news services’ investigation of lead hotspots nationwide.

The 93701 area is one of Fresno’s more impoverished neighborhoods, with about 56.6 percent of residents living below the poverty line – more than twice the rate in the Fresno metro area, according to census data from the 2015 American Community Survey. The rate of poverty among children is even higher.

At $19,468, median annual household income there is less than half the $45,233 median income for the Fresno metro area. About 85 percent of housing units in that ZIP code are renter-occupied, according to census data. Seventy five percent of residents are Hispanic.

High levels of lead in children is not new in Fresno, where factors such as an aging housing stock with chipping lead-based paint, imported ceramics, and contaminated soil and dust are mostly to blame, city leaders, county health specialists and residents say.

The Bee reported in its project on Fresno’s substandard housing, “Living in Misery,” that higher lead levels are associated with such housing.

Water has not been found to be a source of lead poisoning in the county, the Fresno County Health Department said.

Lead exposure can harm a child’s nervous system, impair brain development and lead to a low red blood cell count, or anemia.

The health department’s Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program monitors lead exposure and provides case management, outreach and education to children with elevated levels. It also trains community groups and providers to increase awareness of lead in the community and to decrease exposure. But the department does not have funding for abatement programs.

Families were referred to the city of Fresno or the Fresno Economic Opportunities Commission for abatement help – removing the wood surface that paint was sitting on, removing soil or enclosing the problem area.

The city’s three-year, $2.4 million federally funded lead abatement program helped 122 units – houses and multifamily residences – remove lead from their homes, said Jennifer Clark, development and resource management director for the city. But that program ended in 2016. The city plans to apply for more funding, Clark said, but the competition is stiff. It’s based on current lead levels and housing stock, she said.

The health department is in the process of applying for a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for lead abatement.

Esther Delahey, executive director of the Lowell Community Development Corporation, a community engagement organization, said residents and property owners are aware of elevated lead levels in their neighborhood because a majority of the homes were built before the 1970s.

But over the years, many homes have been repainted through the city’s lead abatement program, she said, leading her to question the state data.

“There was a lot of outreach done in this area and obviously in areas with high levels of lead and older housing stock,” Delahey said. “I think with programs like that and outreach  there is something we can do about it.”

“It would be interesting to have more current data  to see if we have done anything to abate this.”

BoNhia Lee: 559-441-6495, @bonhialee