A lengthy investigation by Reuters News identified thousands of U.S. communities with lead levels more than twice those found in Flint, Michigan, during that city's notorious water crisis — and several of those communities are in Vermont.
Two years ago, Flint made headlines for having high levels of lead in its municipal drinking water. Health officials were quick to point out the danger that posed to small children; even small amounts of lead can stunt a child's brain development and cause permanent learning and emotional problems.
Reuters reporters Michael Pell and Joshua Schneyer decided to investigate how many other communities might be dealing with lead poisoning.
Nationwide, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 2.5 percent of children ages 1 to 5 have elevated levels of lead.
After analyzing a decade's worth of public health data from all over the country, Pell says they found much higher rates in 3,800 communities, including several in Vermont.
“In Rutland, for example, we found that from 2005 to 2015, 18 percent of children tested had elevated lead levels,” Pell said.
“By way of comparison,” Pell went on, “during the peak of Flint, Michigan’s water crisis, 5 percent of children tested high.”
An elevated result was any test higher than the CDC’s current reference number, which is 5 micrograms per deciliter. That’s the level at which the agency recommends a public health intervention.
Pell says Rutland and Vermont as a whole have made progress reducing lead levels in children.
“Still in 2015, the most recent year of data, 14 percent of tested children had high lead levels," says Pell. "So I mean, that’s a community that is still struggling with childhood lead exposure.”
And it’s not just Rutland. The Reuters data found 14 percent of tested children in Bennington had high lead levels from 2005 through 2015. And nearly 15 percent of tested children in Springfield had high levels for that same period — though the prevalence in both communities dropped to between 9 and 10 percent by 2015.
State health officials say those findings are accurate.
Matthew Bradstreet manages Vermont’s Healthy Homes and Lead Poisoning Prevention Program, part of the state's health department. He says a big part of the problem is Vermont’s aging housing stock.
Seventy percent was built before lead paint was banned in 1978, Bradstreet says, and getting rid of all the old paint and the dusty residue it leaves behind is difficult. He says it’s especially problematic around windows, doors and on front porches.
But he says they also track a lot of lead contamination to vintage or salvage items that people bring into homes as decor. He says the items often have deteriorated paint on the surface.
"People are drawn to that look, but it's actually a potential risk," Bradstreet says.
Even if an older house has been thoroughly renovated, Bradstreet recommends homeowners have their water tested to ensure safe lead levels, especially if there are old pipes.
Vermont law requires all 1-year-olds and 2-year-olds to be tested for lead. But Bradstreet says statewide, only 78 percent of 1-year-olds and 67 percent of 2-year-olds were screened for lead last year.
Doctors typically do a finger prick test first and if lead levels are high, they follow up with a venous sample — blood taken from a vein. But Bradstreet says not all Vermont doctors will draw blood in their office and some parents don’t want their children subjected to a needle.
“So that’s requiring another visit or going elsewhere, and there’s a lot of people who just aren’t following up and getting that done,” says Bradstreet. “And we can’t provide case management services unless there’s a venous-confirmed lead level.”
Bradstreet says it’s tough.
“We’re a universal screening state, so we should have 100 percent [of kids being tested]," Bradstreet says. "So we’re always trying to increase that rate by doing outreach with the public through our district offices and through our website: healthvermont.gov/lead."
It may get even more challenging. The Trump administration has called for significant budget cuts in many of the federal agencies that share responsibility for lead poisoning prevention, including the CDC which helps fund Bradstreet's efforts.