The V.I. Health Department is intensifying its efforts to raise awareness about lead exposure and its impact on health, particularly for the most vulnerable population — pregnant women and children ages 0 to 6 — after Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. declared a local State of Emergency on Monday to address high levels of lead and copper found in some of St. Croix’s drinking water.
Bryan Jr. declared the emergency during the Government House press briefing on Monday as the precursor to seeking a national emergency designation to address the potable water system on St. Croix.
As the Department of Planning and Natural Resources collaborates with its federal partners and the Water and Power Authority to rehabilitate the water system, the Health Department is intensifying its efforts around lead exposure, the department announced in a release shortly after the press briefing.
“We are announcing the launch of a new project titled ‘Safe Haven: A Lead-Free Family Initiative,’ with the objectives of increasing awareness about lead exposure and conducting blood lead level pediatric testing for children ages 0 to 6 years old on the island of St. Croix,” said Nicole Craigwell-Syms, acting commissioner for the V.I. Health Department.
Lead exposure can impact children’s development from the womb and early childhood, affecting attention spans, hyperactivity, and IQ levels. The risks of lead exposure are not limited to children; adults exposed to lead exhibit irritability and aggressive behavior, and it negatively impacts virtually every system of the body, the press release stated.
“Testing the blood lead level will allow us to develop a baseline to determine the health impacts of lead in children as we work toward a lead-free future,” Craigwell-Syms stated. “Our goal is to test approximately 1,000 young children on the island of St. Croix.”
Testing will be provided at no cost, the release stated.
This week, Health’s Epidemiology Division, in collaboration with the Education Department, will pilot the program at Alfredo Andrews Elementary School for students in pre-K to first grade, according to the release.
Parents of those students can register their children and provide parental permission for testing at the AAES public registration site. It is currently open for parents and guardians of Alfredo Andrews students only, it said.
Starting Nov. 6, DOH will offer blood lead level testing to all children ages 0 to 6 on St. Croix. To have a child tested, a parent or guardian must register their child on the online portal and provide consent. On Wednesday, DOH will provide a new link to the registration site via local news outlets, online at www.doh.vi.gov, and on the Facebook page, the release stated.
The Epidemiology team will conduct tests from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday to Friday, at the Community Health van located adjacent to the department’s modulars in Estate Richmond, Christiansted. DOH is also providing the blood lead level test to the general population of children ages 0 to 6 at no cost, it said.
A child with lead poisoning may not exhibit visible signs or symptoms, and many children with lead poisoning appear healthy. A blood lead test is the best way to determine if a child has lead poisoning. The capillary blood lead test, a finger-prick sample, is the initial step to check for lead in a child’s blood, according to the release.
During this test, a small amount of blood is taken from the finger and tested for lead, it said.
If the capillary blood lead test shows positive results, the DOH will contact the parent or guardian and recommend follow-up testing. A venous blood draw is used to confirm the capillary blood test results, drawing blood from the child’s vein, which is less likely to be contaminated with lead. The venous blood draw will be sent to a laboratory for testing, and results may take a few days. If the venous blood draw indicates lead poisoning, follow-up services will be recommended, the release stated.
Residents with health concerns related to lead testing can call the Health Department’s hotlines from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. People can call 340-712-6299 or 340-776-1519.
DOH strongly urges residents to also assess their home environment, it said.
“Lead isn’t limited to water; it’s present in old plumbing, paint, soil, and consumer products,” emphasized Craigwell-Syms. “We encourage residents to assess their homes and to consider installing filters or water filtration systems,” she said.