Nearly 1,000 San Francisco children last year tested positive for lead in their blood, putting them at risk for neurological impairments and potential health complications later in life.
The results, however, come as no surprise to city health officials who collect the data annually, attempt to track down the affected families and order their landlords to eliminate the toxic material. Keeping children safe from the chemical remains a daunting challenge in San Francisco.
Lead paint was once optimal for its ability to withstand the moisture of fog rolling in off the ocean while retaining a vibrant color. As awareness of the toxicity of the paint grew, its production was discontinued in 1978.
But nearly all The City's housing stock dates back to before the late 1970s, and to this day lead paint plagues San Francisco's children.
The highest concentration of children testing positive for lead in their blood is in low-income, minority neighborhoods. Last year, there were 195 cases reported in the 94110 ZIP code (Mission district), 147 in 94112 (Excelsior) and 135 in 94124 (Bayview-Hunters Point area). No neighborhood was immune, however, with cases reported in more affluent neighborhoods such as Nob Hill and the Marina and Sunset districts.
"It's an outrage," said Myrna Melgar, deputy director of the Mission Economic Development Agency, a nonprofit in the Mission. The group provides outreach on the dangers of lead and people's options for remediation.
"By the time [a symptom] shows, the damage has already been done," Melgar said.
Ultimately, property owners are responsible for keeping housing units habitable under city law, which considers lead a nuisance that must be abated. The Mayor's Office of Housing provides grants to remediate lead hazards. This year, it was awarded
$3 million from the federal government to help address those issues in 110 low-income apartment units.
The Department of Public Health's Children's Environmental Health Promotion Program, managed by Karen Cohn, includes a lead prevention program that is staffed with two investigators and two bilingual educators. She said they conduct about 300 to 400 investigations a year based on the blood tests.
There are several challenges in safeguarding children from lead. Parents may not be aware of the dangers, past remediation efforts are not always permanent, tracking down families can be difficult and tenants fear retribution from landlords if they report lead concerns, according to Cohn.
Another challenge is the lack of blood testing. In 2012, there were 7,716 lead blood tests conducted on children, of which 990, or 13 percent, were found to have some level of lead in their bodies. The tests are mostly done on those 6 years and younger, and predominately 1- to 2-year-olds.
But that testing falls short, according to Cohn, who said there should be at least 16,000 blood tests annually based on The City's birth rates and that blood tests should especially be done in each of the first two years of a person's life.
According to census figures, 13 percent of San Francisco's population is under the age of 18 and 4.4 percent, or 35,203, are under 5.
Every year, the results are the same: Hundreds of blood tests come back positive for lead.
"It's a constant," Cohn said. "What I want to see is it decreasing."
Finding the lead
Number of children testing positive for lead in 2012 by ZIP code:
Source: Department of Public Health