20 Marathon Co. children tested positive for lead poisoning last year

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WAUSAU, Wis. (WSAW) -- Out of just more than 1200 tested, 20 children in Marathon County tested positive for lead poisoning in 2018, according to preliminary reports from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. Those cases can all be traced to lead paint in older homes, Dale Grosskurth from the Marathon County health department tells NewsChannel 7.

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Despite lead paint being banned by the federal government in 1978, lead poisoning continues to be a danger especially for younger children living in older homes built prior to the 1978 law. In Wisconsin, more than 200,000 children have been diagnosed as lead-poisoned between 1996 and 2016 according to the DHS. The problem is most concentrated in Milwaukee, but is also prevalent in most other metro areas in the state, including Wausau.

Tackling the ongoing problem is behind more than $16 million in funding that Governor Tony Evers has assigned to lead testing, abatement and the new Lead-Safe Homes Program. The DHS obtained approval from the federal government on Monday to move forward with the Lead-Safe Homes Program, Deputy Secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk said. The program channels funds from Medicaid and BadgerCare Plus into initiatives like window replacement and repainting for eligible households, or those that meet up to 301% of the federal poverty level.

“Our goal is to do several hundred homes a year across the state, and those homes are fixed permanently,” Willems Van Dijk said, adding that they planned to prioritize homes where a child had already been diagnosed with lead-poisoning. “We hopefully will have a future where no child and no person in Wisconsin suffers from this exposure.”

Lead at levels of 5 mcgs/dl or more in the blood present dangerous complications for children. Almost everyone has levels of lead in their blood, Willems Van Dijk said, but at 5mcgs or more, it produces toxic effects.

“Once lead is in the body, it’s pretty much there permanently,” she explained. “It’s very hard to get it out. And it can cause lifelong challenges. It’s a neurotoxin so it gets in the brain; it can cause decreases in a child’s IQ, and the other effects of that can affect other behavioral issues. Children with high blood levels can be prone to violence.”

The higher the level in the blood, the more devastating the effects on a child’s cognitive abilities. Out of the 20 that tested at 5mcg or higher in Marathon County in 2018, 2 children tested at the 10-19 ug/dl level; none were higher than 20 ug/dl.

While any child on Medicaid or BadgerCare automatically gets tested for lead, some area hospitals are also now testing for lead poisoning at the 12-month infant checkup. That data is included in DHS reports.