Lead – “The Silent Killer”

When you hear, “lead poisoning,” do you imagine an issue from the past — a concern of your parents, or grandparents’ generation? While lead poisoning has dramatically declined, it remains a serious issue. In fact, it may come as a surprise that lead still poisons thousands of people in the U.S. every year.

When lead enters the bloodstream, it can affect the brain and nervous system, slow development, impact hearing and speech, and cause behavioral challenges. Young children under 6 years are disproportionately affected by lead exposure as their growing bodies absorb lead at a much higher rate than adults. They are also unknowingly at risk of exposure to lead from various sources: accidentally eating contaminated dust from lead-based paint in older home, drinking water from lead pipes, and playing with lead-based toys and products. Many imported household items such as traditional remedies, religious powders, certain cosmetics and jewelry contain traces of lead.

Raising Awareness in Community

In 2018, only 0.044% of children under six years old in King County – 6,750 of 155,000 children in this age range – were tested for lead. Of those tested, 3.2% of the children reported had an elevated blood lead level.

No level of lead is safe. Yet, historically underinvested communities, recent immigrants, and low-income families are at a greater risk for having a child exposed to lead. South King County residents’ risk of exposure is higher than other parts of the county due to older housing conditions and lower income levels – challenges that stem from deeply entrenched systemic issues.

Recognizing the grave dangers that lead poses to our communities, Public Health— Seattle & King County’s Lead and Toxics program works alongside various community partners to increase lead awareness and educational programming across the county – particularly in South King County. In partnership with Somali Health Board, Horn of Africa Services, B.E.S.T, King County Medical Society, Toxic Free Future, and Washington Poison Center, the Lead and Toxics program works with their partners to train community members as Community Lead Experts who provide culturally relevant Lead outreach, resources, and education for their own community. Recognizing that each community comes with its own cultural nuances, knowledge, and histories, it’s essential for community members to be at the table, leading the programs’ progress.

“It’s critical to bring awareness to lead because a lot of people in our community are not aware,” says Rowaida Mohammed, the Lead project Manager for the Somali Health Board.” A lot of people live in older buildings built before 1970, and when they’re handed out pamphlets by their landlords – or not at all –they throw it away because they’ve never heard of it before.”

After learning about lead, Rowaida says that parents felt empowered because they now have control of the situation. In fact, she says that “some of the parents found out that some of the school pipelines have lead so they were able to talk to the principal about the situation.”

Leyla Hassan, a Community Lead Expert with Somali Health Board, says that the impact on her community has been focused on education and raising awareness. “Now that our community is educated on lead, they’ve been attending workshops to test products and children.”

Looking ahead, Rowaida acknowledges that there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done. “There’s still a lot of people who don’t know what lead is or how to protect themselves and their family. So, what’s next for us is to spread information, make resources available in different languages and clinics, and ensure that providers are following up with their clients if they are exposed to lead.”

Engaging the Community

In August, the Lead and Toxics program hosted a Virtual Lead Conference in partnership with community-based organizations and local nonprofits, who led, organized and executed the event. The conference successfully drew over seventy virtual attendees and the sessions were simultaneously interpreted in seven languages for attendees utilizing live call-in lines.

Community engagement is a corner stone of public health work. The Lead and Toxics program relies heavily on community input and action to influence their work’s direction, and the virtual lead conference serves as an example of how community can lead and guide difficult conversations regarding equity and public health engagement. In order to close health disparity gaps in lead exposure, it’s critical that the community defines what this work looks like and what direction is should take.

Leading up to the conference, the King County Medical Society and our community partners hosted a Youth Public Health Science Fair focusing on lead and lead poisoning. From posing hypothesis to conducting research within their communities and presenting to family members, young students learned about the risks of lead and shared their new knowledge with their loved ones and community members.

Mustafa and Yassir, both in 6th grade, named their presentation: “Lead the Silent Killer”, and posed the question: how does lead enter the body? After winning third place, they reflected on their learning and said, “most people don’t know anything about lead, which is very dangerous.”

Bethel, in 7th grade, suggests that everyone conduct their own online research, as she learned a lot once she began delving into resources for her project. For Sartu, a 6th grader, her big takeaway was realizing that “we should learn more about lead and inform our children, neighbors, siblings, and community about lead.”

If you think you or a loved one is at risk

There are many steps families can take to reduce their risk of exposure, starting with a blood lead test. If your child’ has an elevated blood lead level, your family is eligible to have a free in-home visit from a Public Health staff member to look for potential sources of lead present in your home.

If you think you or your love one may be at risk of exposure, visit King County’s Lead Web Portal to access resources and testing information. You can also reach out to Najma Dahir-Abdulla at ndahirabdulla@kingcounty.gov or 206.477.4122.

Find out if your child needs a blood lead test. Download and print a checklist:

CDC’s 5 Things You Can Do To Help Lower Your Child’s Lead Level
Spanish Version

“Facts about Lead” PortalKing County Environmental Health Services


Drawings by Amy Camber


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