Tracking lead at the local level

(Reuters) - Until recently, California’s Department of Public Health had not shared much localized information on children’s lead levels, citing patient privacy laws and gaps in data it had collected.

Three-year old Kendra Nicole Rojas, plays with pet bunnies at her uncle's home where she and her mother Karla Rojas, 26, (R) used to live but moved out after lead paint was found in the home in the Historic South Central neighborhood of Los Angeles, California, United States April 5, 2017. Picture taken April 5, 2017.

That was troubling to reporters Josh Schneyer and Mike Pell, who wanted to identify the lead poisoning risks facing kids in every neighborhood in the world’s richest country, including in the most populous county in the United States, Los Angeles, with 10 million inhabitants.

Beginning in mid 2016, Reuters began asking California and other states for information on the number of children tested; the number of children with elevated levels of lead in their blood as defined by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control; and a breakdown by Census tract or zip code.

California had previously published occasional state and countywide surveys of blood test results and for months resisted sharing more granular data. A reporting breakthrough came in October when, after repeated calls and emails, health officials agreed to release some limited data that tracked blood lead levels by zip code, allowing for observation by smaller areas.

With this data, Reuters was able to identify communities like Fruitvale, in Oakland, where rates of high lead tests among children were higher than in Flint, Michigan, where a state of emergency was declared in 2015 because of high lead levels in drinking water. This drew immediate concern from members of Oakland’s city council.

Reporters pressed for more, and in March, California offered a better snapshot, providing previously unreleased data tracking childhood blood testing in a total of 546 zip codes, more than double what it had shared earlier. And this month, L.A. County provided a trove of census tract-level results covering most neighborhoods.

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Especially illuminating was analyzing lead exposure down to the census tract, instead of across a whole state or county. For instance, Reuters found that while Los Angeles had a 2 percent rate of elevated lead tests countywide among small children, that figure can give at-risk communities a false sense of safety. As we report today, in hundreds of L.A. neighborhood areas – 323 in all – five percent or more of children tested had elevated exposure.

That’s the same prevalence the CDC found in Flint, Michigan, during the peak of its lead contamination crisis. Twenty-six L.A. census tracts, in rich and poor areas alike, had rates at least double those found in Flint.

One of the Thomson Reuters Trust Principles is that Reuters “shall pay due regard to the many interests which it serves in addition to those of the media.” In this case, our goal was to act in the public interest – to inform health officials of the extent of the problem as well as people living in communities across California.