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Local health departments adjust to help a lot more kids with lead poisoning

A woman wearing glasses holds a small child who smiles, wearing a reddish pink shirt. A child behind them covers their mouth, wearing a Steelers jersey. A blood pressure cuff hangs on the wall behind them.
Jacob Sippel
U.S. Navy
A U.S. military pediatric care facility.

Local health departments are adjusting to more work as they assist more kids with lead poisoning than before. Six months ago, Indiana lowered the threshold for when children with lead in their blood can start to receive services — cutting it in half from 10 micrograms per deciliter to 5.

That means local health departments are doing more home visits, educating more parents, and informing more doctors when a child has elevated lead levels.

Carrie Ramey is the public health nurse for the Greene County Health Department. She said the number of kids the county helps with lead issues has probably doubled. Ramey does a lot of that work herself and said she could use more staff.

“Somebody who can help me with the workload of doing lead case management — and also still doing the other things that we do here in the health department. But the other thing would really be getting the word out to the public that lead is still a problem," she said.

There is no safe level of lead. Even though it was banned from paint and gasoline, it can still be found in homes built before the 1978, water pipes, and soil.

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Karla Johnson is with the Marion County Health Department. She said the new threshold hasn’t been as big of a change for Marion County because it started providing full services for kids at that lower level a long time ago.

But now the department also provides some services to kids with 3.5 micrograms per deciliter of lead — which is what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now recommends.

Johnson said the county has a partnership with local universities — and those students and interns help to free up staff.

“It gives them an opportunity to see what public health is all about and get whatever credits they need for school. We get the help that we need in terms of relieving some of the paperwork and things like that that our staff may have," she said.

The Gary Health Department has hired a full-time lead case manager as well as someone to do home lead testing and risk assessments.

Felecia Berry is the department’s nursing services manager. She said she's glad the blood lead threshold for services was lowered because it's helped raise awareness about the dangers of lead.

Berry said landlords sometimes think that once they've renovated a home, the lead issue has been resolved. That's not always the case.

Lead paint in a home is more likely to be found peeling off in the areas people are less likely to paint — like around windows, doors, exterior trim, stairs and porches.

Berry said one of the biggest challenges since the threshold change so far has been reassuring parents that the health department wants to work with them to protect their kids — not break families apart.

“We do like to let the parents know, listen, this is not anything bad that you've done. We're just trying to help the situation. Maybe the only thing is for you all to move or whatever we need to do to help the child, that's what we're willing to do," Berry said.

IUPUI and faith groups in Indianapolis also offer anonymous home lead testing kits.

State lawmakers passed a law this year that requires doctors to offer lead screening for every child under 6. It goes into effect in January.

Finding lead is only the first step and cleaning it up can be expensive.

The Indiana Department of Health said there are more than 1,500 open lead cases, but it only has the budget to help fund lead cleanup in just over 60 homes this fiscal year. The Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority also has funding to help homeowners remediate lead.

Contact reporter Rebecca Thiele at or follow her on Twitter at @beckythiele.

Rebecca Thiele covers statewide environment and energy issues.