Members of the Greater Indianapolis NAACP announced Thursday they plan to partner with the mayor and the county health department to offer free lead screenings to schools.
The program targets students in kindergarten and the first grade — the ages when children are most vulnerable to lead poisoning — at two of the city’s largest school districts, Indianapolis Public Schools, Pike Township schools, and at charter schools managed by the mayor’s office.
Marion County Public Health Department Director Virginia Caine and other leaders said a recent discovery of high lead and copper levels in drinking fountains spurred the groups to act.
“We know that childhood lead poisoning is considered the most preventable environmental disease of our young children,” Caine said. “But not only do you find lead poisoning in the environment, like in our older buildings. It can be in water…We found it in toys.”
The department screened around 13,000 children last year, Caine said. While any presence of lead is concerning, Caine said results showed Indiana is ahead of the curve: The average amount of lead discovered in the group’s blood was 1 milligram less than the national average.
When a child is discovered to have high levels of lead in their blood, the health department typically sends its staff out to test the child’s home and other environmental factors to determine the source of the lead exposure.
The county health department already provides free testing to families who are living in low-income areas or who are enrolled in Medicaid. Now, parents can ask their local schools to screen their children with a blood test. The department said it’s too soon to tell how much the school screenings will cost, but the funding will come from the agency’s budget.
Indianapolis Public Schools Board Commissioner Elizabeth Gore said she and the school board support the initiative because it can uncover lead poisoning early and prevent further harm to a child.
“No lead is OK,” Gore said at the NAACP press conference. “It is so disturbing to the community’s quality of life and health.”
The Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention reports children exposed to any amount of lead is dangerous. But those exposed to lead in large quantities or over an extended period of time can experience a range of behavioral issues and learning disabilities.
That’s why NAACP Education Committee Chair Garry Holland said it’s vital for public officials to address the issue now.
“After the third grade, the lead, if it’s elevated, seeps into the bone,” Holland said. “And once it’s in the bone the problems are irreversible.”
Pike Township schools will host a series of wellness fairs during the 2019-20 school year to administer the tests. IPS is still outlining a schedule with the county health department and will engage with families when testing becomes available.
Twenty-two charter schools managed by the mayor’s office have scheduled screenings through November 2019.