Lead levels in the blood of Douglas County children have dropped dramatically over the past several years, but more work is needed, county health officials said Monday.
The Douglas County Health Department reported that in 2012, 119 children tested positive for elevated levels of lead in their blood. That is down 73.6 percent from 1998, when 451 children were identified with elevated lead levels.
“We have made great progress, but lead-safe housing continues to be a concern, especially in the older areas of our community,” said Adi Pour, the county's health director. “It's still 119 too many.”
Children who suffer from lead poisoning in their blood can experience behavioral problems, learning disabilities, speech impediments and reduced intelligence, even at low levels of exposure, Pour said.
Whenever a child is identified with an elevated blood lead level, the Health Department conducts a home inspection to identify lead paint hazards and other sources of lead poisoning. When hazards are identified, department officials order the building's owner to correct the problem. After cleanup work is done, Pour said, crews return to the house and run tests again.
Sources of lead have decreased dramatically over the years, Pour noted. Leaded gasoline and lead-based paint were taken off the market, and lead solder was eliminated from produce cans.
This summer, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported that it had tested more than 41,176 Omaha properties for lead and had cleaned up 11,425 residential yards, mostly in the eastern part of the city. The EPA said that work amounted to a $279.5 million investment and provided about 300 seasonal jobs to workers involved in the effort.
The contamination in east Omaha came from the Asarco lead-refining plant that operated on the bank of the Missouri River until the mid-1990s.
More than 90 properties in Douglas County have been determined to have interior lead hazards, Pour said. The Health Department plans to begin enforcing the city nuisance ordinance, which includes lead hazards, more aggressively, she said.
Money is available to help families that own their homes and meet certain criteria to remove lead paint. For details on the City of Omaha's Lead-Based Paint Hazard Control Program, call 402-444-5150, ext. 2001.