St. Croix, US VIRGIN ISLANDS – During Monday’s Government House press briefing, VI Health Department Territorial Epidemiologist, Dr. Esther Ellis, provided an update on pediatric lead testing of children aged 0 to 6 years old on the island of St. Croix.
“As of this morning, 390 children have completed the initial finger-prick sample. Of the 390, 15 finger prick ‘detected pending confirmation’ have been referred for follow-up confirmatory testing through a venous blood draw,” Dr. Ellis said. “Of the 15, the VI Department of Health has received the results of seven tests which were all returned negative or below the level of concern for lead. To reiterate, to date there have been zero positive lead blood tests.”
Following Governor Bryan’s announcement of the State of Emergency to address high levels of lead and copper in the potable water system, the VI Department of Health, in an abundance of caution, acted quickly to begin providing pediatric blood lead testing to the population most at-risk for exposure – children zero to six years old. Children under the age of six are still developing rapidly, and lead exposure can adversely affect their brain, nervous system, growth, development, and overall behavior.
A blood lead test is the best way to find out if a child has lead poisoning. A child with lead poisoning may not have visible signs or symptoms. Many children who have lead poisoning look and act healthy.
The initial pediatric test, which is a capillary blood test also known as a finger-prick sample, is the first step in checking a child’s blood for lead content. If the finger prick test yields “detected pending confirmation” results, the VI Department of Health will promptly contact the parent or guardian to recommend follow-up testing by getting a blood sample through the vein referred to as a venous blood draw.
“It is important to note that the finger prick sample is a screening process only, and three percent of the time gives a false ‘detected pending confirmation’ result and this is not considered a positive,” Dr. Ellis said. “Additionally, sometimes lead can be on the surface of the hand during a finger prick but will then be absent from a venous blood draw.
“That is why it’s required to do a venous blood draw for any ‘detected pending confirmation’ finger prick results to determine if there is a confirmed positive or not. If the venous blood draw is negative, then that rules out a previous ‘detected pending confirmation’ finger prick result.”
A VI Department of Health nurse administers a finger prick sample to test for lead in an elementary school student.
The VI Department of Health’s Epidemiology and Laboratory divisions have engaged with several parent-teacher associations (PTA) and have completed testing at the following schools: Alfredo Andrews, Lew Muckle, Good Hope/Country Day, Claude O. Markoe Elementary, St. Croix Montessori, Ricardo Richards, and Eulalie Rivera. On Tuesday, the teams will test at three schools: Free Will Baptiste, Start Apple Montessori, and Juanita Gardine. On Monday, November 27th, the pediatric lead testing continues at the Pearl B Larsen.
“We extend our appreciation to parents who have taken the crucial step of having their young children tested for lead exposure,” Dr. Ellis said. “We strongly encourage all parents to prioritize lead testing for their children aged zero to six, even if their homes are not in impacted areas. Expectant mothers should also consider lead testing, as unborn children can be affected by lead in the blood. Please speak with your healthcare provider about getting tested for lead exposure.”
Additionally, Dr. Ellis, on Friday, briefed the Juan F. Luis Hospital medical staff on the department’s ongoing effort to lead test all children zero to six years old on St. Croix.
The department also raising awareness about the various sources of lead contamination that can be found throughout a child’s environment. Lead can be found in homes or buildings built before 1978 when lead-based paints were banned. When the paint peels and cracks, it makes lead dust. Children can be exposed to lead when they swallow or breathe in lead dust.
Lead can also be found in certain water pipes, in products such as toys and jewelry, and in candies or traditional home remedies. Certain jobs and hobbies involve working with lead-based products, like stain glass work, and may cause parents to bring lead into the home. Children who live near airports may be exposed to lead in air and soil from aviation gas used in piston engine aircrafts.
Residents with health concerns related to lead exposure and testing may call the Department of Health hotlines from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. For assistance, please call 340-712-6299 or 340-776-1519. The Department of Planning and Natural Resources also operates a hotline at 340-514-3666 for water sampling concerns. For more information, visit cleanwaterusvi.com.
Please note: The department is revisiting its earlier response to a reporter during today’s press briefing regarding the use of potable water for brushing teeth. Initially, the department indicated that brushing with potable water is permissible. However, following further investigation, the department now urges the public not to use potable water for this purpose.