LINCOLN — More Nebraska children with elevated blood lead levels are being identified as a result of screenings required under a new state law.

The measure, approved by the Nebraska Legislature in April, requires testing for all children under the age of 6 who receive state-subsidized health care.

It recommends testing for children living in areas that have high incidences of lead-poisoning cases or who are deemed at risk based on a questionnaire given out by doctors.

The law was championed by former State Sen. Brenda Council of Omaha to address childhood exposure to lead in older sections of the city.

Council originally proposed mandated lead tests for all children entering kindergarten, but she agreed to a compromise in the face of a threatened veto by Gov. Dave Heineman.

Council said she's satisfied that more children are being tested across the state, even though the measure isn't what she envisioned when she first introduced legislation in 2010.

“I'm encouraged that there will be a raising in consciousness for parents, because all children under age 6 should be tested for lead,” said Council, who lost re-election in November to Sen. Ernie Chambers.

Prior to the new lead law's taking effect, only about 35 percent of children on Medicaid were tested for lead poisoning in Douglas County, Council said. Now, she said, all children under age 6 who receive Medicaid will be tested when they visit a doctor.

The law, which went into effect in July, is resulting in more children being tested.

For the first six months of last year, 14,157 children under the age of 6 were tested across the state, an average of 2,360 per month. Of those, 39 children had lead levels of at least 10 micrograms per deciliter of blood, according to a recent report by the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services.

Between July 1 and Sept. 30 last year, 9,847 children were tested, an average of 3,282 children per month. Of those, 150 tested positive for blood lead levels of 5 micrograms or higher.

The new law, passed as Legislative Bill 1038, lowers the threshold of concern from 10 to 5 micrograms.

Under Medicaid rules, children can qualify for services at the 5 micrograms threshold.

Dr. Joseph Acierno, deputy chief medical officer for Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, said any amount of lead can be harmful to a child. There's no specific level at which physicians can predict resulting health issues, he said.

But the new threshold for low-income children will help doctors identify those who are at risk, Acierno said.

“We would always like to identify more children so we can evaluate the level they are at and do the mitigation strategies,” Acierno said.

Finding those children, he said, will help ensure that siblings and other family members are tested and will facilitate getting the family in contact with a contractor who can help reduce lead risks in the home.

Doctors also can help parents find resources for developmental issues, Acierno said.

A child exposed to lead at an early age can experience health problems ranging from anemia to a drop in IQ to behavioral problems later in life.

If a child receives Medicaid or Women, Infants and Children food assistance, the state will pick up the cost of testing. If a child isn't under those programs, parents will have to pay the costs.

The lab fee for a blood lead test is $9.50, said Reid Steinkraus, Douglas County Health Department's supervisor of environmental inspections and lead. With physician's fees added in, the average cost is $15, though that varies by physician.

Dr. Adi Pour, health director for the Douglas County Health Department, said the relatively low cost is worth it, because children should be identified as early as possible, so they can start getting help immediately.

The law also aims to educate doctors on the effects of elevated blood lead levels and how they can be addressed.

Omaha has the nation's largest residential Superfund site for lead contamination.

The Environmental Protection Agency blames the problems largely on the former Asarco lead refinery, which once operated near the Missouri River.

About 10,000 children are tested in Douglas County for elevated blood lead levels each year, which Pour said results from an educational push over the past few years by the Health Department.

“We try to follow the children who have elevated blood-lead levels and make sure they're getting everything they need,” Pour said.

Contact the writer: 402-473-9580, robert.korth@owh.com

CHILDREN TARGETED FOR LEAD TESTING

» Those living in at-risk areas. Targeted zip codes in Nebraska are:

Omaha: 68102, 68104, 68105, 68106, 68107, 68108, 68110, 68111, 68112, 68191, 68132

Lincoln: 68502, 68503

Alliance: 69301

Beatrice: 68310

Fremont: 68025

Grand Island: 68801

Harvard: 68944

Hastings: 68901

Nebraska City: 68410

Scottsbluff: 69361

» Those receiving Medicaid or Women, Infants and Children food assistance.

» Those deemed at risk based on a questionnaire distributed by Nebraska doctors. If the response to any of the questions is "yes" or "don’t know," the child should be tested.

1. Does the child live in or often visit a day care, preschool or home of a relative built before 1950?

2. Does the child live in or often visit a house built before 1978 that has been remodeled within the last year?

3. Does the child have a brother, sister or playmate with lead poisoning?

4. Does the child live with an adult whose job or hobby involves lead?

5. Does the child’s family use any home remedies or cultural practices that may contain lead?

6. Is the child included in a special population group, such as foreign adoptees, refugees, migrants, immigrants or foster children?

For more information, go to dhhs.ne.gov/lead

Source: Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services

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