State tests for blood lead levels in local children

Aztec, La Plata have relatively high percentages of children testing positive for elevated lead levels

Hannah Grover
San Juan County
  • At least 7 percent of children tested in Aztec and La Plata showed elevated lead levels in their blood
  • Small sample sizes and false positive tests can contribute to high percentages, according to the department of health spokesman
  • The main cause of lead poisoning is lead-based paint
  • Officials found no evidence of an increase in blood lead levels related to the Gold King Mine spill


FARMINGTON — A high percentage of children tested in two local communities have elevated blood lead levels, however the samples were relatively small and could have provided false positives, state health officials said.

The New Mexico Department of Health provided The Daily Times with data for Kirtland, Farmington, Bloomfield, Aztec and La Plata zip codes for tests done between 2006 and 2015.

Elevated lead levels are defined as five or more micrograms per deciliter of blood.

According to this data, 7 percent of children in La Plata who were tested had elevated lead levels and 7.17 percent of children in Aztec showed the same elevated lead levels. In contrast, about 5 percent of children tested in Flint, Mich., showed elevated levels of lead in their blood, according to Reuters.

Nationwide, 3.3 percent of children test positive for elevated lead levels. In New Mexico, about 1.2 percent of children test positive. In San Juan County, 1 percent of the 3,129 children tested between 2010 and 2015 showed elevated blood lead levels.

Four percent of Farmington children had elevated levels of lead in their blood and about 3.5 percent of Bloomfield children showed elevated lead levels. Less than 1 percent of children tested in Kirtland had elevated levels.

Blood tests

Children enrolled in Medicaid are tested around their first or second birthdays. But just because the child tests positive for elevated lead levels does not mean that the child has lead poisoning, according to New Mexico Department of Health spokesman Paul Rhien.

He explained that the children are first tested by a finger prick. If that shows elevated blood lead levels, a second, more complete, test is administered. Oftentimes, a child whose finger prick tested high for lead in blood will not test positive for elevated levels during the subsequent tests. However, these children still show up in the department's data as cases of elevated blood lead levels.

Another factor potentially contributing to the high percentages is the relatively small number of children tested. In La Plata, only one of 13 children tested between 2006 and 2015 had elevated levels of lead, and, in Aztec, 24 of the 237 children tested showed elevated lead levels in their blood after the finger prick test.

Causes of elevated blood lead levels

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, children are more at risk from lead poisoning than adults because their smaller bodies result in higher concentrations and their brains and nervous systems are more sensitive to the effects of the metal.

The most common cause of elevated blood lead levels is from exposure, commonly through ingestion, to lead-based paint in older buildings, Rhien said during a phone conversation Wednesday. In an email, Rhien said the department takes every elevated blood test seriously and works to identify potential sources of exposure to lead.

The EPA lists dishes and glasses that contain lead, lead-contaminated soil and lead-based paint as some of the ways children can be exposed to the metal. People can also be exposed to lead if the water pipes in their houses contain lead. Both lead-based paint and lead pipes are more common in older houses. However, the number of homes in the area affected by lead leaching from water pipes is very small, according to data provided by municipalities

There were concerns during the Gold King Mine spill of August 2015 that the plume of water laden with heavy metals from the mine could increase the lead in wells near the Animas River north of Aztec. However, recent blood testing has not shown evidence of any increased lead in children's blood related to the spill, according to Rhien.

In 2016 and the beginning of 2017, two of the 72 children tested in the Aztec zip code — less than 3 percent — had elevated levels of lead, according to the department of health.

Managing lead poisoning

In his email, Rhien said the department is usually able to find the source of lead exposure and manage the levels of lead in the children's' blood through a diet high in calcium and iron. He explained that calcium and iron help the body release lead.

Lead poisoning affects a child's development. According to the EPA, this can cause behavioral and learning problems, slowed growth, hearing problems and anemia. Because of these dangers, Rhien said every child younger than six years old should be tested for lead.

"The effects of lead on children are very serious," he said.

Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652.