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Fewer Vermont kids are getting tested for lead since the pandemic. Why?

A graph showing the share of 1- and 2-year-olds tested for lead from 2009 to 2022.
April McCullum
Vermont Public
Vermont seeks to have every 1-year-old and 2-year-old's blood tested for lead, but testing rates dropped during the pandemic and have not recovered.

The percentage of young Vermonters who got their blood checked last year for lead was still below pre-pandemic levels.

And the state Health Department wants to start a number of new programs to encourage families, and doctors to check more 1- and-2-year-olds for the dangerous toxin.

“We’re going to be interviewing parents. Pediatricians are going to be working with their families. Because there may be reasons that they say their levels are not where it should be," said Vermont Health Commissioner Mark Levine.

Lead poisoning is dangerous for anyone, but it is especially bad for young children, as lead in the blood can cause damage to the brain and nervous system, which some tests have shown to be irreversible.

The percentage of 1- and 2-year-olds who got their blood tested dropped significantly during the pandemic.

Between 2019 and 2021, the share of 2-year-olds who got a blood test dropped more than 10 percentage points, while the testing rate of 1-year-olds fell about 6 percentage points.

Both those age groups inched up a little last year, but the number of children receiving the blood tests are still below pre-pandemic levels.

"So many things are not at the levels they were at pre-pandemic," Levine said. "So when you figure out that people weren't going to offices as much because they were afraid to go near the health care system with the pandemic, you end up having people advised to go to labs, which many parents did not feel enthusiastic about."

There was also a recall of a blood testing kit during the pandemic that may have affected how physicians choose to test their patients.

Levine says the Health Department will make a targeted effort this year to reach out directly to families that have not had their children tested.

The state expects to contact about 3,000 families with children ages 2 to 6, and data gathered from those interviews will be used to address the barriers that some families seem to have in testing their children.

And Levine says the state will also contact all physicians that have more than 20 patients aged 1 or 2 to stress the importance of administering the blood tests.

Any physicians that have more than 40% of kids overdue for tests will receive additional attention, according to Levine.

New blood poisoning level

Vermont last year lowered the definition of when lead poisoning should be a concern to families.

Previously when a blood lead test result was higher than 5 micrograms per deciliter, the state offered additional support and case management.

But the state now says that any trace of lead in the blood should be recognized and monitored.

Levine said because there is now a recognition that any amount of lead is dangerous for young children ,the state wants to increase its efforts to boost the number of young children who get their blood tested.

"You're only 1 year old and 2 years old for a period of time, and those are critical periods where developmental biology takes over," Levine said. "Those are the critical years. So clearly we need to be concerned."

According to the most recent data, 18% of the 1- and 2-year-olds that were tested had some trace of lead in their blood.

Lead was detected in 1,561 Vermont children under the age of 6, and about half of those had levels greater then or equal to 3.5 micrograms per deciliter.

Among the 2-year-olds that were tested, about 17% had some lead in their blood, and almost 4%, or 143 children, had levels greater or equal to 5 micrograms per deciliter.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state.
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