GALVESTON – During the past 15 years, 2,171 Galveston children have been poisoned by an environmental toxin that causes irreversible nerve and brain damage.
An average of 20 percent of the children tested every year have lead poisoning, a condition that causes learning disabilities, attention deficit disorders and behavioral problems, according to data collected by the Galveston County Health District.
Galveston’s poisoning cases are six times higher than the state average.
Experts say the ongoing exposure to the toxin is so pervasive it is having an effect on the island school district, work force and criminal justice system.
City and county officials have known about the problem since 1992, but their attempts to limit lead contamination have apparently not been effective.
The city continues to get a failing grade for lead exposure every year on the Children’s Report Card published by the University of Texas Medical Branch.
But a new study, paid for by the Kempner Fund and conducted by the Baylor College of Medicine, gives city leaders a second chance to identify and clean up pockets of lead contamination.
Will they take it?
Although officials have known about Galveston’s lead problems, experts say most of the island’s residents are completely unaware that their homes could be hurting their children.
Nora Flores said she had no idea the house she and her husband, Juan Carlos Hernandez, were renting in the 3900 block of Avenue Q was toxic.
But earlier this year, her two youngest children, Marjorie, 4, and Carlos, 15 months, tested positive for lead poisoning.
In broken English, Flores said she was shocked and scared.
The children both had a blood-lead level of 13 micrograms per deciliter, enough to cause damage.
Two-thirds of Galveston’s residential buildings were built before the federal government banned lead-based paint.
The walls and woodwork of the structures, both inside and out, are coated with poison that seeps into the air and soil when the old paint is removed or begins to peel and flake.
Using data from lead poisoning cases reported between Nov. 16, 1992, and Jan. 31, 2006, researchers have created a map that predicts where children with elevated blood-lead levels are most likely to live – a good indication of where the poisoning takes place.
Winifred J. Hamilton, Baylor’s director of environmental health, said she hoped community leaders would use the map to test properties likely to have lead contamination and begin cleaning them up.
While the list of testing candidates is long, officials could take care of a big chunk of the problem properties by focusing on the study’s short list – 434 of the 2,171 children poisoned in the last 15 years lived in properties owned by just 12 landlords.