Bill Requires California To Test Millions of Children for Lead Exposure

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For Immediate Release: 
Monday, August 31, 2020

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – On Sunday, the California state legislature sent Gov. Gavin Newsom a bill that would protect millions of children from the developmental and health impacts of toxic lead exposure. Assembly Bill 2276 addresses the state’s poor track record of ensuring that the children most at risk of lead poisoning are screened and tested. 

A report by the state auditor found more than 1.4 million children covered by Medi-Cal, California’s Medicaid healthcare program, did not receive proper lead tests and that the state Department of Public Health was neglecting the prevention of lead poisoning. This bill’s requirements are especially important now that children are primarily confined to their homes during the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s time that we ensure that all toddlers on Medi-Cal are tested for lead,” said Susan Little, EWG's senior advocate for California government affairs. “Safeguarding our children’s health must be a priority. This bill holds Medi-Cal managed care plans accountable for testing children in their care. Plans and doctors will have to pay careful attention to children’s lead-testing outcomes, and the state will clearly be able to sanction plans that fail to comply with the testing requirements.”

State law already requires that children enrolled in Medi-Cal receive tests for elevated lead levels between the ages of one and two years old.

Assemblymembers Eloise Reyes (D-San Bernardino), Cristina Garcia (D-Bell Gardens), Bill Quirk (D-Hayward) and Rudy Salas (D-Bakersfield) are the joint authors of the bill.

“Lead is a major threat to children’s health,” said Olga Naidenko, Ph.D., vice president for science investigations at EWG. “Exposure to lead can result in developmental delays, attention deficit issues, cognitive disorders, behavioral disorders and a lifetime of severe mental and physical ailments. There is no safe level of lead in a child’s body.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention agree there is no safe level of lead in children. Lead is a carcinogen, harms kidney function and has been linked to delayed growth. Lead exposure in children can lead to learning disabilities and serious health consequences.

In January, a study published in the journal Nature Medicine found children of lower-income families who live in neighborhoods with a high risk of lead exposure scored significantly lower on cognitive tests and had smaller brains. All children can be exposed to lead in drinking water and old paint, but kids in low-income communities are considered most at risk of exposure to dangerous amounts of lead.

“For decades, California has fallen woefully short of its responsibility to identify, test and treat the children most vulnerable to toxic lead exposure,” said Little. “Testing is essential to identify highly exposed children and the neighborhoods where kids are at greater risk of lead exposure.”

AB 2276 addresses many of the key issues identified in the state auditor’s report, and will require the Department of Health Care Services, managed care plans and providers to prioritize protective lead screening services for Medi-Cal children. Medi-Cal managed care plans are required to identify enrolled children who have not received the required lead tests, and notify the child’s healthcare provider and parent or guardian, as well as state regulators, about the missed tests.

The bill also explicitly allows the state to sanction managed care plans that don’t comply with the lead testing requirements. In addition, it codifies additional risk factors that pediatricians must consider when determining if a child should be screened for lead. The Department of Public Health is also required to update its funding formula for local lead poisoning prevention programs to account for the presence of all lead-exposed children in a county.

“We hope Gov. Newsom gives the issue of lead poisoning the action it deserves,” said Bill Allayaud, EWG’s California director of government affairs. “There is no safe level of lead, and the neurological damage it can cause in young children can last a lifetime. That is why it is so critical the state take these additional steps to protect California’s most vulnerable population from further exposure to lead.”

AB 2276 is co-sponsored by EWG, California Coalition of Welfare Rights Organizations and the Western Center on Law and Poverty.

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