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County wants funds for lead poisoning program

Community leaders acted swiftly last month when a county environmental worker discovered lead contamination in the playground of a Clearwater day-care center. The center is closed, and all of the children who went there have been tested for lead poisoning.

But health officials say that lead poisoning is a serious problem that they grapple with every day. And to help solve the problem, Pinellas County's Public Health Unit will ask the federal government for hundreds of thousands of dollars to improve the county's lead poisoning prevention program.

"If the funds are granted, we will be able to screen large numbers of infants and young children and identify those with lead poisoning," John P. Heilman, director of the Health Department, wrote in a recent letter.

The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta will be offering money to local governments to combat lead poisoning. Each grant will be limited to $450,000, and Pinellas may ask the centers for the full amount, said Melanie Thoenes, a nursing program specialist for the public health unit.

If health officials are awarded the money, they hope to expand the childhood lead poisoning prevention program that is offered in conjunction with All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg, Heilman wrote in a letter to County Commissioner Barbara Sheen Todd.

In October, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Louis Sullivan called lead the nation's No. 1 environmental threat to the health of children. As many as 4-million youngsters _ about 17 percent of the national total _ have lead levels in their blood that require medical treatment, he said.

At that time, federal officials said they thought there was a greater danger of youngsters being hurt by lead poisoning at lower levels than previously thought.

Because of that, Pinellas health workers think they will need more money than ever before to combat the problem, Thoenes said.

The closing of Kinder-Care Learning Center _ where only one child had a lead level in his blood considered unsafe _ brought the potential danger from lead into the forefront, Thoenes said. But health experts have battled the problem for years, particularly in older neighborhoods where homes are more likely to contain lead.

"That definitely brought the problem to public awareness," Thoenes said, adding the department has treated lead poisoning for years. "We just didn't have any money. We had to target our efforts as best we could with a shoestring budget. But this has always been a real big concern."

The Health Department hopes to use the money to buy an $80,000 blood lead analyzer and a $15,000 paint lead analyzer. The department also would like to hire additional staff, including environmental health specialists, nurses, an outreach worker, a secretary and a program director, Thoenes said.