The parking lot was overflowing at Claremont’s back-to-school fair this year, held at a playing field just outside of downtown. Families with young kids checked out the fire truck and race cars, and visited booths offering back-to-school info, giveaways and games.
One booth had a freebie no child was begging for: free on-site lead tests.
A nurse with Valley Regional Healthcare walked kids through the process, washing their fingers to remove any dust before taking a blood sample with a quick prick.
This year for the first time, the school district is requiring lead screenings for all students entering kindergarten and pre-k. The fair, just over a week before the first day of school, was a good chance for parents to get those tests in if they hadn’t already.
The district’s policy is thought to be the first of its kind in the state. Lead exposure has long been a challenge in the area, and city officials are hoping the new rules help to tackle the problem. Lead is a neurotoxin, and exposure is linked to learning difficulties and aggressive behavior.
At the lead-screening booth, Crystal Plude got in line with her 21-month-old daughter, Emma. She was surprised to learn lead is an issue. “I know it was a while ago,” she said, “but I didn’t think it was still.”
Before long, she settled into a plastic chair, holding Emma in her lap. The nurse took a blood sample, and Emma burst into tears. By the time the results came back, though, Emma was smiling, proudly showing off her new band-aid. Her results were in the normal range. “I figured she’d be okay,” Plude said.
Others are not as lucky. One mother tested two of her sons as a result of the new school policy. One, going into kindergarten, tested low, but the other, younger child had an elevated results.
Near the lead testing booth, Claremont School Board Chair Brian Rapp was waiting for his turn at the dunk tank. He said many families he’d spoken with had been surprised to learn that lead was something they needed to be watching out for. “To have this campaign out there, it helps a lot,” he said.
Lead paint in homes is the single largest contributor to elevated lead levels in New Hampshire. Even the tiniest bit of paint dust can be poisonous to young children.
“You don’t ever want to rob a child from being able to grow into the most productive and capable human being that they can be,” said Claremont Mayor Charlene Lovett, who has championed lead awareness and prevention as a key priority. “When you have poisoning that can cause such irreparable damage, well, you’ve robbed them from that.”
Because of its older housing stock, Claremont is one of several communities in the state where health officials recommend universal lead screening for kids. But, according to the most recent data available, only about half of all one-year-olds and less than a third of two-year-olds in the city are screened.
City officials and local health providers are now hoping to dramatically improve those numbers. Mayor Lovett said she expects, in the short-term, they’ll start seeing the number of elevated tests results increase. “Is that because anything different is happening in the environment? No,” she said. “It’s only different because we’re doing a better job of identifying the issue.”
She looks at screenings as step one -- the real goal is to prevent poisonings from happening in the first place. To that end, she’s working with others across the community to get the word out about lead in homes and pull together resources for property owners to deal with the issue. Armed with better data, she said, the city can more effectively tackle the problem for the future.