Here’s What You Need to Know About That Vox Report on Lead in Philadelphia

The site compares lead exposure levels in Philly and 17 other Pennsylvania cities to Flint, Michigan. But the cause of the problems are likely very different.

Photo by Morgan Burke, Creative Commons license.

Photo by Morgan Burke, Creative Commons license.

According to Centers for Disease Control and Pennsylvania Department of Health data published in Vox, 18 cities in Pennsylvania, including Philadelphia, have higher levels of lead exposure than Flint, Michigan. Flint, of course, has made national headlines in the aftermath of revelations about its water crisis.

In Flint, 3.21 percent of the children were found to have at least 5 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood. In Philadelphia, according to state Department of Health records, that figure is 10.19 percent. (5 micrograms per deciliter is the threshold level the government uses to identify dangerously high blood lead levels. The Centers for Disease Control has continuously lowered what it considers to be a dangerous level of blood lead over the years based on surveys.)

Philadelphia’s exposure rate puts it 17th among the 18 cities in the state with higher levels of lead exposure than Flint (Vox has a chart which puts it in focus); among this group, only Pittsburgh has a lower rate. Exposure rates run as high as 23.11 percent in Allentown, the Pennsylvania city with the highest level of elevated blood lead levels.

Flint’s exposure rate is the result of the city’s emergency managers switching its water source to a local river whose water proved highly corrosive in 2014. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Health, the most common source of lead poisoning in Keystone State children is aging, deteriorating lead-based paint chips and dust.

To be specific, “exposure rate” is not quite the right term for what’s being measured. “We don’t measure lead exposure. No one does,” Philadelphia Department of Public Health (PDPH) spokesperson Jeff Moran told Philly Mag. “We respond to children with elevated blood lead levels and provide services for those children to help lower their lead level. This is an indirect measure of lead exposure.”

A FAQ document produced by the Philadelphia Department of Public Health (PDPH) explains that Philadelphia’s main water sources, the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers, “do not contain detectable levels of lead” and that the water is treated with an anti-corrosion agent to keep lead in pipes through which it travels from corroding and leaching lead into the water. The city of Flint did not treat its water with this anti-corrosion agent.

A Philadelphia Water Department news release (PDF) issued after the news about Flint broke states that the city’s water main system “delivers clean, safe water to our customers’ homes and businesses and is not a source of lead in the water.” But it went on to note that “customer service lines and plumbing fixtures may be made of lead or contain lead materials.” The city follows an EPA rule that calls for systematic testing of customers’ tap water. City Council, however, will hold hearings on the Water Department’s recommended testing method after an article in The Guardian charged that testing methods in “every city east of the Mississippi” ignored EPA guidelines and misleadingly understated levels of lead in local water supplies.

As for reducing the risk of exposure to lead, the PDPH offers education and guidance to both families and landlords and works with the court system to enforce a state law that requires landlords to certify that any property built before 1978 is lead safe before renting it to any tenant with children age 6 or below.

Philadelphia is one of six cities receiving money from the CDC for the express purpose of monitoring lead exposure, but Vox said it was unable to obtain neighborhood-level exposure data from the city.

We were never asked by the reporter for community level information,” Moran said. “Given time to extract data and prepare a report, we could provide recent data on blood lead levels in Philadelphia children. We provided such data by section of the city in a map that was included in our 2014 Community Health Assessment report.”


elevated-lead-levels-400The map in that report (left) appears to be based on the older standard for elevated blood lead levels, which placed the threshold concentration at 10 micrograms per deciliter. In 2012, the Centers for Disease Control adopted a new standard that set the threshold at the level below which 97.5 percent of all children fell, currently 5 micrograms per deciliter, a figure that will be revised every four years as blood lead levels in children continue to fall. Given how recently this standard was adopted, not all cities have updated data based on it.

Pennsylvania does not require children to be tested for lead, but health care providers are required to test children on Medical Assistance (Pennsylvania’s Medicaid program) at ages 1 and 2, and most clinical practices recommend testing children at age 7. The PDPH recommends that parents test their children for lead beginning at 9 months and every year until age 6.

The statewide rate of lead exposure in Pennsylvania is 9.37 percent, and the average for the 20 cities the state collected city-specific data on is 11.37 percent. But as the geometric mean of blood lead level tests in Pennsylvania is 2.3 micrograms per deciliter, lead poisoning disproportionately affects children in the state’s older, larger cities.

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