$1.1 million project seeks prevention of lead exposure


San Antonio (Nov. 16, 2004) – The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has given The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio a $1.1 million grant to support expanded screening of children and pregnant women for lead exposure and to encourage more physicians to test for lead before symptoms appear.

The Health Science Center’s division of community pediatrics is coordinating Project L.I.F.E., short for “Lead Investigation and Family Education,” which engages partners including the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District, the Neighborhood Action Department of the city of San Antonio, The University of Texas at San Antonio and The University of Minnesota.

Lead poisoning, which affects an estimated 1 million American children ages 1 to 5, is linked to kidney damage, anemia, developmental deficits, poor memory and other cognitive issues, skin problems, failure to thrive, and damage to nerves that transmit information from the brain and spinal cord throughout the body. Alarmingly, lead crosses the placenta into the womb.

The Health Science Center will provide instruction on the dangers of lead to 250 primarily Hispanic mother-and-child pairs, including about 50 pregnant women. The researchers also want to reach 300 children’s health professionals. “Lead is being phased out of use, but it is still in our environment,” said Victor German, M.D., Ph.D., chief of the division of community pediatrics at the Health Science Center and principal investigator of the HUD grant. “Through increased education, we want to mediate the short- and long-term effects of lead on the children and mothers and prevent future lead exposure.”

Bexar County data for 2001 showed that 452 children under age 6 were identified as having a blood lead level greater than or equal to 10 micrograms per deciliter (µg/dl), the level considered to be toxic. Risk factors for lead exposure include minority ethnicity, age of housing, income level and occupation. “The scary thing about lead exposure is we don’t really have enough good information about how high it is in San Antonio,” said Anthony Scott, Ph.D., associate professor of community pediatrics and a member of the lead education project.

Lead can come from many sources, including lead-based paint, pottery with lead glaze, pipes soldered with lead, automotive repair shops, factories, and even cultural remedies such as azarcon, a lead salt used as a folk remedy in Mexico. Children are especially vulnerable to lead-contaminated soil because of hand-to-mouth play, said Kayan Lewis, Ph.D., project evaluator from the division of community pediatrics.

“Lead is hazardous for young children,” said Project Coordinator Monica Minter from the Health Science Center. “It is absorbed into bones and blood, and it can last in a child or an adult up to 20 years depending on the person’s metabolism.”
Lead can be especially damaging to the unborn. “Lead toxicity has several potential adverse effects during pregnancy, such as increased risks for miscarriage, high blood pressure late in pregnancy and reduced birth weights,” said Project L.I.F.E. Co-Investigator Donald Dudley, M.D., professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the Health Science Center. “Excess lead also is associated with male infertility. Importantly, we do not have good data that says what a normal lead level is during pregnancy, or what the best treatment of lead toxicity is in the pregnant woman.”

Obstetric care providers often are not aware of the impact that high lead levels have during pregnancy and rarely test for it, Dr. Dudley said. One aspect of the project is to educate obstetric care providers in San Antonio and South Texas about the dangers of lead toxicity during pregnancy.

Most programs focus on lead abatement but don’t seek to engage families and health professionals, Dr. Scott said. Project L.I.F.E. unites the Health Science Center researchers with the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District, which does child lead screenings and referrals; the Neighborhood Action Department, which handles lead abatement; and UTSA researchers, who will conduct soil sampling to assess local lead levels. The University of Minnesota Children, Youth and Family Consortium will provide consultation on lead curriculum for families and health professionals.

The project’s soil sampling component involves UTSA’s Center for Water Research and is headed by Dibyendu Sarkar, Ph.D., director of the university’s Environmental Geochemistry Lab.

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