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County to assess lead poisoning risk to kids

The head of Hillsborough County's Health Department said Tuesday that his agency will begin a pilot program within weeks to test children for lead poisoning. The program eventually could lead to screening for thousands of youngsters who are at risk for lead poisoning.

The health department's decision came in response to a story that appeared Sunday in the St. Petersburg Times, Dr. Donald Kwalick said.

The Times reported that Hillsborough County tested only five children for lead poisoning in 1989.

"This will show us if we do or don't have a problem (with lead

poisoning)," Kwalick said. "I think there could potentially be a problem."

For years, federal officials have urged local health departments to test children for lead poisoning on a widespread basis. But when federal money for local lead screening programs ran out in the early 1980s, Hillsborough virtually stopped screening children.

In Pinellas County, officials continued testing and eventually acquired their own specially equipped laboratory to reduce costs.

Pinellas screens up to 6,000 children a year for lead poisoning, and officials have identified hundreds of children who suffer from lead poisoning. More than a dozen of those children have been hospitalized since 1987.

Last week, after learning of the Pinellas lead poisoning results, a Tampa housing official said that Tampa probably has a similar problem, based on the similarities of older housing in the two cities.

Lead poisoning, which most often strikes children because of their small size, inhibits nerve development and can cause learning disabilities, behavioral problems and kidney disease. The primary source of lead in children is believed to be old lead-based house paint. Lead was banned for most kinds of paint about 10 years ago.

Other lead sources include gasoline and plumbing.

Tampa housing officials have found lead paint in all 10 of the homes tested during the past year. The testing was conducted under a mandatory program for houses that are being rehabilitated with federal loans. A similar city-sponsored loan program does not require testing for lead paint, however.

The Tampa Housing Authority, which also receives federal funds, has found lead paint in 103 of the 110 units it has tested.

Despite the presence of lead paint in its older housing, Hillsborough County is the only urban county in Florida that does not conduct extensive screening of young children for lead poisoning, according to figures provided by the Florida Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services.

Kwalick said his agency will begin a pilot program in two clinics that serve people from older Tampa neighborhoods. The program will test 400 children. Sites for the clinics have not been determined.

"Based on (the pilot program) we'll decide whether we need funding for an ongoing program," Kwalick said. The Hillsborough agency also could acquire the ability to do its own laboratory tests, as Pinellas has, Kwalick said.

Hillsborough County now must send its samples to the state laboratory in Jacksonville, which charges $8 per test. The health department often can get reimbursement for children who are covered by Medicaid. But only about one-third of the department's young patients are covered.

Kwalick said he did not regret the years that the health department failed to screen large numbers of children.

"There was no standard policy to do that test," he said, adding "you try to do the best you can with limited resources."