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Abe Proctor of The Skanner
Published: 07 June 2006

Part of the charm of living in many inner North and Northeast Portland neighborhoods is their age. The stately old homes, the big front porches, the stout trees overhanging the streets.

But many of those same old homes that charm us with their craftsmanship and character hold an old danger left over from a time when we didn't know as much as we do today: lead-based paint.

Fortunately, it's relatively easy to discover whether there are dangerous levels of lead in your home, and even easier to make a more important determination: whether there is a dangerous level of lead in your blood. A mobile blood lead screening clinic makes regular stops in the older neighborhoods of North, Northeast and Southeast Portland to check the blood of local residents, particularly children, for free.

The clinic is named for Josiah Hill III, a longtime community activist in North and Northeast Portland who died in 2000, said Elyce Brown, a clinic employee. Hill III was the first African American physician's assistant in Oregon and made combating lead poisoning a personal crusade. Hill started with a group of volunteers who would test local residents' blood for lead on Saturdays. Eventually, the group stepped up its efforts and became a nonprofit organization, the Josiah Hill III Clinic.

The clinic's next lead screening session is set for 5 to 7 p.m. June 8 at Matt Dishman Community Center, 77 N.E. Knott St. The test consists of nothing more than a finger prick, Brown said, and the results can be determined before you leave.

"If the test comes out higher than we'd like to see, then we recommend following up with a full blood draw," Brown said.

Public health officials began to be suspicious of lead exposure as far back as 1950 , said, and lead-based paint was finally banned by an act of Congress in 1979. Thus, houses built after 1978 can generally be assumed to be free of lead, and the more a house predates 1978, the more likely it is to contain lead in the form of deteriorating paint and contaminated house dust.

"The majority of the lead-based paint you're going to find is in houses that date to 1950 or older," Brown said. "In 1950, talk really picked up about lead-based paint hazards, and paint companies were already starting to reduce or eliminate the lead in their paint."

Today, approximately 24 million housing units in the United States have deteriorated leaded paint and elevated levels of lead-contaminated house dust, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most are in older neighborhoods, like many in North and Northeast.

Multnomah County experiences a childhood lead poisoning rate of about 1 percent to 2 percent each year, Brown said, with slightly higher rates in older neighborhoods.

"That sounds maybe small at first, but it adds up to a lot of kids," she said. "In the Portland area alone, that's 800 or 900 kids a year."

Exposure to lead can lead to a host of neurological ailments, particularly in children between the ages of birth and 6 years. Not only are children in this age range growing at a rapid rate, they are prone to touching a great number of objects and then putting their hands in their mouths. Adults can suffer from exposure as well, but developing bodies are especially sensitive.

"In children, exposure can be quite low and still result in lower IQs, learning disabilities and other problems," Brown said. "And it's extremely well-documented — there is no question that lead is a direct cause of these kinds of problems."

Complications from lead exposure in children can include learning disabilities, behavioral problems and, at very high levels, seizures, coma and even death. And there is a racial component, too: Because more African Americans live in older, often deteriorating houses and buildings, the incident of childhood lead exposure is 3 percent, compared to 1.3 percent of White children.

Brown said that just because a child is older than 6, it doesn't mean that he or she is in the clear in terms of lead exposure.

"Recent studies have shown that, even from 7 to 18, kids' brains are still in a developing mode and lead can still have an impact," she said. "For adults 18 an over, there still can be a negative impact — depending on the level of exposure — that can range from physical ailments like aching bones and joints to more serious neurological conditions."

To learn more about lead poisoning in the home and about the clinic's upcoming lead screening dates, visit www.jhillclinic.org. The clinic schedules about five screenings each month.

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