Unsafe at Any Level Millions of American children missing early lead tests

Many states and Medicaid rules require blood lead tests for young children, but millions are falling through this safety net, leaving them vulnerable to poisoning – and showing lead worries extend beyond Flint, Michigan

LEETONIA, Ohio – When Jennifer Sekerak took son Joshua for his age-one check-up, the pediatrician saw no need to test for lead poisoning. The baby wasn’t yet walking, she recalls the doctor saying, so was unlikely to be playing around hazards like lead paint.

Over the next year or so, Joshua was twice hospitalized for mysterious symptoms. He began refusing food and eating dirt. There was violent head-banging, sleeplessness, skin lesions, vomiting.

“He stopped talking, he wanted to eat dirt, and he would scream like a banshee,” Sekerak said. “To be honest, he was like a wild animal.”

Once, Joshua was rushed to the hospital in Boardman, Ohio, and diagnosed with severe anemia, a common finding in lead-poisoned children. Hospital staff told Sekerak her son, enrolled in Medicaid, might have lead poisoning. But the hospital, Akron Children’s at Boardman, did not test his blood for lead, she says. Citing federal privacy rules, a hospital spokeswoman declined comment.

At the mother’s urging, a new pediatrician tested him at age two. His blood lead concentration was 19 micrograms per deciliter, nearly four times the level Ohio defines as lead poisoning and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers elevated. Had Joshua been tested earlier – as Medicaid and Ohio rules required – the family could have more quickly removed him from a lead-infested rental house, Sekerak said.

Joshua’s case is not unique, a Reuters investigation found. Nationwide, millions of children are falling through the cracks of early childhood lead testing requirements.