OAKLAND — Children in the Fruitvale neighborhood are being exposed to lead at levels more dangerous than in Flint, Michigan, according to a new report from Reuters.
But the risk in Oakland, while alarming, is for a different reason, officials said. While Flint made headlines for lead contamination in drinking water, the danger in the Oakland neighborhood lurks in the lead-based paint on buildings ending up in dirt and air.
The Reuters report found that of 500 children tested who live within the Fruitvale ZIP code 94601, 7.57 percent of children had elevated levels of lead in their blood — far exceeding the nationwide average of 2.5 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This was the only data available for Oakland.
The report also found that 3.02 percent of 500 children tested in the 95127 ZIP code in East San Jose had elevated lead levels in their blood.
During the 2014-15 water crisis in Flint, 5 percent of children had elevated lead levels. The Reuters study found about “2,606 census tracts and another 278 ZIP code areas” with lead poisoning rates at least double those in Flint. The areas with the highest child lead-contamination rates were in industrial cities in the Midwest and in rural mining towns, where some elevated results exceeded 40 percent.
Heightened lead levels in children “can reduce IQ and stunt development,” according to the report. In kids up to age 6, the CDC threshold for an elevated blood level is 5 micrograms per deciliter.
Many of the communities in the study are affected by “legacy lead,” such as crumbling paint, plumbing or industrial waste. That’s the case in Oakland, where 90 percent of the housing stock was built prior to 1978 when lead was banned from being used as a paint ingredient, said Larry Brooks, director of operations for the Alameda County Healthy Homes Department.
Fruitvale, with its older apartment complexes and commercial buildings, is among the neighborhoods most susceptible to lead exposure. In one high-profile case in Fruitvale, a 55-unit apartment building on 36th Avenue rife with lead hazards received a federal grant to clean up the complex. Twenty of the units had children younger than 6 living there.
In another example, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2011 used ground fish bone to extract lead from soil in West Oakland’s South Prescott neighborhood.
“There’s going to be other neighborhoods where there are similar risks involved,” Brooks said. “The challenge is collecting the data and having the children tested in order to determine how dangerous the situation is.”
Brooks said residents are reluctant to report the hazards, fearing landlords might retaliate.
“It’s not just Oakland; it’s all over California,” said Yolanda Burrell who co-owns a homesteading shop called Pollinate Farm & Garden along Fruitvale Avenue. Her shop offers classes to local gardeners on how to treat contaminated soil. “What I always advise people is that if they haven’t done a lead soil test to go ahead and assume they’ve got a significant lead level in their soil.”
Jenesse Miller, a spokeswoman for East Bay Municipal Utility District, stressed it was unfair to compare Oakland to Flint. Corrosion in pipes led to the contamination in Flint’s drinking water, Miller said, but the local water supplier has performed corrosion control dating back to the 1930s and historically has replaced pipes containing lead.
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