Public health officials revamp efforts to protect Alaskans against lead poisoning

A doctor with a brown sweater stands in front of an emergency room
Doctor Michael Savitt stands outside the waiting room of Anchorage Health Department on Tuesday, April 2, 2024. (Matt Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

On a recent weekday afternoon, Cayley was playing with her four-month-old daughter, who’s nicknamed Bun or Bunik, the Iñupiaq word for daughter. We’re not using Cayley’s last name to protect her family’s privacy. 

Bunik is just starting to learn how to roll over from her tummy to her back. Her doctor said she’s right on track developmentally, but that’s not something Cayley takes for granted. 

When she first got pregnant, she had been working at a metals mine in Alaska for two years. 

“That’s what made me realize I should check my lead levels and be more careful about that,” Cayley said. 

When her job tested her, Cayley’s blood levels of lead were over six micrograms per deciliter, that’s well above what’s considered “high” by the CDC although it still falls below OSHA limits. She said her midwife consulted with a health expert in Seattle because she didn’t have enough experience with prenatal lead exposure. 

“When I first realized that the lead levels could be concerning, I was pretty scared,” Cayley said. “I was really scared when the midwife was worried about the lead levels, and she was talking to somebody in Seattle.”

High exposure to lead can be harmful to people, especially babies and children, whose brains and bodies are still developing and high lead levels during pregnancy can lead to low birth weight or even miscarriage

State epidemiologists say Alaskans can be exposed to lead through many jobs and hobbies including mining, fishing and hunting. And while they recommend that all children are screened for lead exposure, only about 12% of kids in Alaska are tested, which is lower than the national average of 18%. So the state is re-launching a working group to coordinate public health efforts around lead exposure and the Anchorage Health Department is starting a lead testing clinic, so families can get connected with help if their kids test high. The clinic will test people for lead Wednesdays at the Anchorage Health Department, with a sliding scale fee from free to $40.

Dr. Michael Savitt, pediatrician and chief medical officer for the city, said if lead is in the house, it’s easy for young kids to be exposed because they put everything in their mouths. 

“No lead in the blood is considered normal, but certain levels become concerning,” Savitt said. “So, that’s why we’re starting a lead clinic so that we can get a handle on the situation.”

Kids can be exposed through many things including old paint, soil, antique toys, game meat with lead shot, or hunting supplies. Savitt said if families think their child may have been exposed, they should get tested, either at the new clinic or through their healthcare provider. 

“If mom is the one who has the lead contamination source, then it may be passed to the baby and breast milk,” Savitt said. “But if there’s any concern, any consideration that there may have been an exposure, I would urge people to have their blood tested. It’s a very simple test.”

Savitt said the clinic will test people for lead on-site, so the results will be available within about 15 minutes. And he said the clinic can connect anyone with high lead levels to care. Sometimes lead poisoning is asymptomatic, but Savitt said high lead levels can lower kids’ IQ, and cause behavior and hearing problems. 

“The child can be irritable, fretful, can complain of headache, abdominal pain,” Savitt said. “There may be a poor appetite, which would impact growth. It can affect the central nervous system.”

Statewide last year, about 4% of Alaskan kids who were tested had high lead levels. Many of the effects of lead poisoning on kids are permanent, but the right care can help reduce lead levels to prevent more harm.  

Allison Natcher, who manages the state’s Environmental Public Health Program, said it’s important for families to consider ways they could be bringing lead and other contaminants into the house. And she said the state is re-starting a multidisciplinary working group to help reduce Alaskans’ lead levels. It includes public health nurses, doctors, epidemiologists and tribal entities. 

“It’s everybody coming together saying, ‘We recognize that we need to make improvements and we want kiddos to be safe and healthy’ and that also extends to their parents too,” Natcher said. 

If kids get tested and have high lead levels, the environmental health department can work with them to figure out how they’re getting exposed. Natcher said good nutrition can help prevent high lead levels by reducing lead absorption. 

“We recommend consumption of foods rich in iron, calcium, zinc, selenium, fiber, and vitamins B, C, and E, in addition to reducing your sugar intake,” Natcher said.

Cayley, the mother who was working in a mine, couldn’t negotiate a position with less lead exposure, so she quit her job a couple months after testing high. Since then, her lead levels have come down and the last time she was tested she was within the normal range. Her daughter Bunik is on track developmentally and Cayley plans to test her lead levels in the future.

RELATED: Anchorage Health Department to offer low-cost baby check-ups

Rachel Cassandra covers health and wellness for Alaska Public Media. Reach her at Read more about Rachel here.

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