December 5, 2021

Referrals over lead increase

Other county health programs impacted by new state mandates

Water Faucet

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New state mandates on safe lead levels mean the number of Cortland County children found with dangerous amounts of lead could nearly double as 79% of the homes in the county predate when lead paint was banned.

It also means county residents will also need to look to other agencies for help on hygiene housing issues, concerns over bulk petroleum storage at gas stations and well and septic work because the Cortland County Health Department will no longer run those programs so it can free staff to handle the increased number of lead cases.

“In light of the budget issues here in the county, I don’t feel that we can go and ask for more personnel until we truly need it,” said Catherine Feuerherm, the county health director. “By cutting out the non-mandated programs, I hope that we can free up enough staff. If we get more referrals than we can handle then obviously I will need to go back to the legislature and ask for more staff.”

Under the new mandate, the level of lead in a child’s blood requiring action under the Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program was lowered to 5 micrograms per deciliter of blood from 10 micrograms. That change would align the state with the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s standards, states a news release from the office of Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie’s (D-Bronx).

But with the new changes comes more referrals.

In 2018, before the change, 40 children in Cortland County were found with lead levels at or above five micrograms per deciliter, health department data show. Also in 2018, the number of referrals increased from around 30% to 50% from previous years.

This year, the county had seven physician referrals for lead exposure in October alone, and the number is expected to grow.

Lead is commonly found in homes built before 1978, when lead paint was banned. Peels and cracks in the paint lead to lead dust, which can be poisonous when inhaled.

In Cortland County, 79% of the homes were built before 1979. Feuerherm said the health department recommends abatement by an Environmental Protection Agency-certified contractor.

“There’s a lot to it,” said Ken Morton, the general manager of Perfect Painters Heritage Builders Inc. in Ithaca. Steps must be taken to protect the person removing the lead, people who live in the home and others, depending on whether the lead is inside or outside the house. It involves knowing what to seal off to prevent lead from escaping. Cost to do the treatment can depend on how much and what has to be done.

“It could run from few hundred to a few thousand,” Morton said.

Then how it’s paid for affects standards too.

“It’s totally different if there’s federal funding involved,” he said.

The state enacted the Lead Poisoning Prevention Act in 1992, requiring action for blood lead levels at 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter or greater. However, the CDC revised its guidelines in 2012 based on the recommendation of a committee of experts who noted “a growing number of scientific studies that show that even low blood lead levels can cause lifelong health effects,” according to the CDC.

High lead level can cause convulsions, coma, even death. Lower levels can cause decreased intelligence, impaired neurobehavioral development or stunted growth.

Cortland County’s expected workload increase “resulted in us rewriting our sanitary code to eliminate non-mandated codes for health,” Feuerherm said.

The housing hygiene program, which looks at whether a home has insect infestations or other problems, was handed over to municipal code officers to handle.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation was given control of bulk petroleum storage for gas stations — something the health department had overseen since the 1980s due to the aquifer.

Also, homeowners looking to get well or septic help will now need to hire an engineer because the health department will no longer help with the plan design.

The mandate changes also meant the county needed to buy a $17,000 device used to help find the source of lead in a house, covered with unused funds because the state didn’t fund the new requirement, Feuerherm said.