A blue Sesame Street Muppet named Rosita giggled and played with children at Neighborhood House Day Care Center Wednesday. But her message was neither playful nor light.
The outsized puppet wants children and their parents to know that lead poisoning has terrible effects on children. And there are remedies so simple that even young children can be part of the prevention effort.When very young children are exposed to lead, it builds up in their brains, right at a time of very rapid development. As a result, an affected child may have trouble learning or develop behavior problems. There are also significant physical problems, including hearing loss and anemia.
In serious cases, there is a "measurable decrease in intelligence," said Dr. Thomas Schlenker, director of the Salt Lake City-County Health Department. "It can affect whether (the child) graduates and what kind of job he or she gets later in life."
An estimated 1,000 inner-city children under 6 in Salt Lake City have elevated blood lead levels, which are often a result of exposure to the lead-based paints in older houses. But there are other lead sources, including dust and some glazed pottery. Lead can even be spread through a car repair shop, foundry or do-at-home stained-glass projects that use lead solder.
Inner-city children are not the only ones at risk.
"All children are at risk," said Joanne Livesey of the Children's Television Workshop, who introduced a comic book for parents as part of the campaign. "It can happen to anyone."
The good news is that lead poisoning is easily detectable with a simple blood test. If elevated levels are found, the source of the lead can be located and removed. In most cases, without further con-tami-na-tion, the lead level drops "down to normal, hopefully with no permanent effects," Schlenker said.
With the help of Rosita and Maria, the hostess on "Sesame Street," the preschoolers at the day-care center watched a "Sesame Street" video designed to teach them ways to protect themselves from lead. They were told to wash their hands before eating, stay away from peeling paint, leave their shoes by the door so they don't track lead in the house and see a doctor for the screening blood test.
A current campaign aims to get children who live in the 84111 and 84116 ZIP code areas screened for elevated blood lead levels. Those areas are targeted in part because of the number of older homes that are likely to have been painted with lead-based products.
Salt Lake Mayor Deedee Corradini declared Wednesday Lead Away Day as part of a national campaign to foster both awareness and prevention of lead poisoning. The project was created by the Children's Television Network and the National Safety Council, then funded by Prudential Insurance Company of America.