June 2, 2016

Philip Mason of the Health Department, analyzes a blood lead level at a recent screening.

The Multnomah County Health Department has issued new guidance to families and healthcare providers in response to reports of elevated lead levels in water fountains and faucets in Portland Public Schools (PPS).

Protecting children and pregnant women from lead exposure is vital. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that there is no safe level of lead for children and expectant mothers. The Multnomah County Health Officer has updated advice to health care providers to offer lead testing to concerned families whose children attend or use Portland Public Schools. The same advice applies to teachers and staff.

The Health Department is independently analyzing PPS building maintenance records to prioritize lead screening resources so Multnomah County can provide school-specific services in the coming days. Health Department staff will be scheduling free lead screening clinics in response, based on the severity of the lead levels and student demographics.

Anyone who has a child, or is pregnant, and is concerned about the risk of lead exposure from school drinking water or any other source, can:

  • Be tested for lead. A blood test is the only way to find out if a person has lead poisoning. Children can be poisoned by lead, but not look or act sick. A blood test will find lead in the body from the last 3-4 months. See your healthcare provider about a blood test for lead.
  • Make sure your child is not exposed to lead in other places. Homes and apartments built before 1978 may have lead paint. Carefully clean up any chipped paint and keep paint in good condition. If you plan on remodeling, check for lead first and hire only licensed and certified contractors. People can also be exposed to lead through old household plumbing fixtures, auto repair, soldering, making sinkers or bullets, 
stained glass, and pottery.
  • Make sure your child eats a healthy diet, including plenty of iron (meat, fish, beans), calcium (milk, yogurt, spinach), and vitamin C (berries, oranges, tomatoes). A good diet helps protect young bodies from the health problems associated with lead exposure.

Testing blood for lead

To find out how much lead is in a person’s body, a small amount of blood is taken from the arm. In very young children, blood may be taken from a finger or heel. Blood taken from an arm vein (called a venous blood test) is the most reliable test. Blood lead tests tell how many micrograms (millionth of a gram) of lead are in each deciliter (tenth of a liter) of a child’s blood (μg/dL).

The Multnomah County Health Department and some medical clinics screen for lead using a fingerprick test. This is easier and less scary for children. A high result from this screening should always be double-checked with a venous blood test. The Health Department steps in to assist children and pregnant women with a blood level at, or above, 5 μg/dL.

The Health Department advises that some alternative health care providers may suggest testing for lead in hair or urine. These methods have not been shown to be as reliable as a blood test. “Chelation” refers to medicines that are given by mouth or through an intravenous line to remove metals from the body. This type of treatment should only be used under medical supervision for dangerously high lead levels.

Some information sources mention herbal medicines as “herbal chelation” therapy. The use of “herbal chelation” to lower an elevated blood lead level has not been proven safe or effective. It is important to discuss alternative therapies, including the use of herbal supplements, with your healthcare provider.

Lead investigations in Multnomah County

The Multnomah County Health Department screens young children for lead exposure. School-aged kids are not tested for lead very often. Children under age 3 are most likely to be screened for lead because they are more likely to get lead in their mouths, and their developing brains are more sensitive to the effects of lead.

From 2013 to 2016, more than 15,000 lead tests were conducted in Multnomah County. Of those, elevated blood lead levels were found in 188 children. Eighteen of the children were ages 5 to 19. The rest were under age 5. No cases were traced to lead in drinking water from any source.

Download the advice here

Advice for families concerned about lead in school water fountains (371.48 KB)