Allen and Jessie Long are more or less hoping that state health investigators discover something dangerous in their home.
That would be better than not knowing why their 2-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, has lead in her blood.
She seems fine, full of giggles. But earlier this year, the Longs learned that Elizabeth was among 32 kids in and around this north central Kansas community who were found in routine exams to be carrying elevated levels of lead.
The source of the poisoning for now is a mystery.
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“It’s nerve-wracking,” said Allen Long. “I really hope they can find something in the construction of our house, because then we could get it fixed.”
The good news is that their son Joseph, who is 8, recently was tested and found to be lead-free — zero micrograms per deciliter of blood. Why, then, did his little sister test at 6 micrograms? Same home, same play areas. What gives?
That’s one of the riddles the Kansas Department of Health and Environment is trying to solve.
In the coming weeks, the agency will send teams to the homes of the 32 children, ages 6 months to 15 years, whose blood tests showed levels of at least 5 micrograms per deciliter. Health officials consider that reading too high.
Until the investigations are completed, the Saline County seat of Salina, population 48,000, will fret over the possibilities: Could the drinking water be poisonous, as residents of Flint, Mich., discovered?
Could lead somehow be spreading from the local battery plant?
Or is there no single source, as some officials suspect? Maybe each affected household has its unique hazard: Something in the cookware, in toys, in dust falling from old ceilings when doors are slammed.
Complicating matters, it’s not even clear that Salina has much of a lead problem.
“The number 32 (kids with high levels) is not all that alarming for us,” said pediatrician Brian Harvey of Salina Pediatric Care.
In fact, the number of area children found to have lead levels at 5 micrograms or higher hasn’t changed a lot — bouncing between 21 and 38 annually — in the last four years, according to state reports. So why now the town hall meetings, free health screenings and statewide news attention of a possible lead menace going unaddressed?
“That’s your Flint influence,” said Harvey.
The Michigan city’s battles with contaminated tap water, caused by a switch in water source and failures to properly treat it, has raised suspicions among Salina area residents, Harvey and others said.
With the Flint scandal being so fresh, “everyone’s a little bit hypervigilant” and distrust is evident, Harvey said. “There’s been a big uptick in parent phone calls.”
Local anxieties are further stoked by the state of Kansas failing to fund lead poisoning prevention programs after federal help vanished four years ago.
For six years, three of Nicole Krob’s children have been carrying blood-lead levels as high as 28 micrograms per deciliter. They rely on Medicaid.
“I’m just sitting here twiddling my thumbs waiting for them to get treated,” Krob said.
Medications are available in extreme cases, but doctors have told Krob that her children’s levels don’t merit treatment. She said the state has only offered “a bunch of useless packets of information” and advice that her children’s blood levels be monitored monthly.
Her kids are terrified of visits to the clinic for fear of having blood drawn, she said.
“We brush our teeth religiously” but the kids’ mouths are full of fillings and crowns. Another sign of lead poisoning: their bones are brittle, Krob said; a daughter suffered two broken wrists and a broken leg over a six-month stretch.
“I’ve been doing all I’m supposed to do,” said Krob, whose rented home near the railroad tracks is a showcase of chipping paint. “I double-wash everything. I wipe down the window sills, the floors, over and over.
“When is Topeka going to step up and help?”
The Kansas Department of Health and Environment acknowledges that funding sources, communication and tracking of potential lead issues could be improved around Saline County.
“This is something we realize is a problem,” said agency spokeswoman Cassie Sparks. “Investigations of this magnitude haven’t been done in Saline County, which is why we’re taking a look.”
Officials hope to complete the investigation within a couple of months. Until then, county health director Jason Tiller will not speculate what might be the causes.
The local water utility insists the city supply is fine, but the Kansas health department is checking lines within homes. Soldering beneath sinks and poorly made faucets from China could pose risks even when a water source is found to be safe.
“What we know presently is that there doesn’t seem to be a single source,” Tiller said. “But we want to keep an open mind to all possibilities.”
At a community meeting last month, Kansas health department environmental health officer Farah Ahmed said the state was investigating and providing information to affected families out of recognition that “we just needed to do a better job of helping families figure out what the source is.”
An audience member asked about the Exide Technologies plant, which produces batteries at Salina’s southern city limits.
The manufacturer has had past run-ins with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over lead emissions. In 2011, stricter federal limits required that the company install air-quality equipment that has reduced lead emissions by 75 percent, a state official said at the meeting.
The Exide plant did not respond to The Kansas City Star’s request for an interview.
Parents such as the Longs see no connection to the plant site when they study a map of affected homes.
One such map, released by the county, glows on Jessie Long’s mobile tablet. It’s speckled with red dots indicating where kids with elevated blood levels live.
“Elizabeth is one of the red dots,” Jessie Long said.
Her husband pointed out that the dots appear not just in Salina’s old neighborhoods where houses need repainting, but also in newer and more affluent areas to the south and east. Most of the homes are miles from the battery plant.
“There’s no rhyme or reason,” Allen Long said. “No commonalities.”
Their place on Front Street is about 95 years old. It passed inspection, which included checks on lead contamination, when the Longs bought the house in 2012.
The lead testers they bought at Menards show everything clean.
Allen and Jessie Long wonder about black powder firearm exhibitions both have visited since they were kids. When their daughter’s lead levels were first detected, the couple thought that a black powder event they had attended days earlier might be to blame.
Later tests, however, dismissed that link.
“I got rid of all her toys” upon learning that cheap trinkets made overseas could contain lead, said Jessie Long. “I went through everything I could. I literally cleaned house.”
Her husband hopes that traces of lead will be found in the children’s play area beneath a front porch. If that’s the source, he’ll happily dig out the ground, replace the topsoil and seal up the area with plywood.
No more worries.
High exposure to lead is thought to be linked to learning disabilities, speech delays and slower-than-normal emotional development. For now little Elizabeth, who turns 3 in October, exhibits none of those issues, the Longs said.
The Kansas City Star recently reported that programs to prevent lead poisoning had evaporated across the Sunflower State.
In 2012, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other U.S. agencies lost federal funding that they had provided for states to screen children, remove lead hazards from homes and boost public awareness. When federal assistance for some programs returned two years ago, Kansas did not apply. (Missouri and 28 other states are benefiting from CDC prevention funds.)
In Salina and other parts of Kansas, “we started to see kids fall through the cracks,” said Tama Sawyer, director of the Poison Control Center at University of Kansas Hospital. “I think the state got some bad media about lead, so now they’re having a show” to address fears.
Children’s Mercy Hospital of its own accord is assisting Kansas communities with management of lead poisoning cases, which includes inspecting homes for problems.
While worries about lead poisoning have been voiced in Saline County for years, the area doesn’t historically stand out as a hot spot.
According to a Kansas health department report in 2010, when Kansas’ prevention programs were still funded, higher concentrations of childhood lead poisoning were confirmed in several other counties. About 15 cases per thousand blood tests were reported in Leavenworth County, for example, compared to between five and six cases per thousand tests in Saline County.
The Salina Journal reported Tuesday that the state had tested a little more than 300 blood samples taken at a free public screening, and only one sample showed an elevated lead level.
Even if Flint is driving up concerns, the region should welcome the increased attention to combating lead exposure, said pediatrician Harvey. “We don’t know that any level is safe.”
For her part, Lisa Mahler is glad she had all three of her young kids tested.
“It’s a relief to know they’re OK,” said Mahler, with 2-year-old Clara in her arms outside the public library.
And the discussion reinforces for Nicholas Walker, 11, the wisdom of scrubbing his hands after handling bullets when out hunting with his grandpa.
But from her porch near the railroad tracks, Krob still waits for help.
Her youngest, Edith, is just 4 months old and hasn’t yet been tested.
Mom received her own score Monday: just above 3 micrograms per deciliter. No cause for alarm, though Krob is breast-feeding Edith.
“Obviously, if I have it,” Krob said, “she has it.”