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Part 2: Blood Test Data For Lead Not Accessible To Public In Texas

Lead in the blood stream can cause brain damage and behavioral disorders, and it is particularly dangerous for children, but the state of Texas is slow to inform residents how much lead is showing up in their communities.

San Antonio is a long way from Flint, Michigan.

It was in 2014 that Flint officials changed the city’s water source to save money. Consequently, lead levels began to climb in Flint's drinking water and then in its children.

Following a criminal investigation, 15 former state and local officials face charges stemming from the city's tainted water.

When the lead crisis in Flint became national news, communities across the country wondered if their water was lead free. In San Antonio, officials said a Flint-like problem could not happen here.

“We do daily testing. We do multiple sources of testing," says Robert Puente, CEO of the San Antonio Water System. "Lead is not evident in our water.”

A Texas Public Radio investigation into blood test results collected by the Texas Department of State Health Services shows that there are zip codes in San Antonio with a high percentage of children testing positive for lead poisoning.

Two San Antonio zip codes show levels that rival the lead levels detected in Flint.

At the height of the lead crisis in 2015, the most affected parts of Flint reported 10.6 percent of children testing positive for at least five micrograms per deciliter of blood – the level where brain damage can begin to occur, according to federal guidelines.

State data from 2016 shows a total of 12 San Antonio zip codes exceeded the state average of 2.6 percent of children testing positive for lead at five micrograms or higher. Zip code 78212 was charted at 10.6 percent and 78203 was at 11.4 percent.

The flip side of this information is that there are 43 zip codes in the San Antonio area where the percentage of children testing positive is zero.

Where a child lives is an important factor for whether they are at risk for lead poisoning. Knowing which zip codes are high risk is valuable information for parents and doctors when making the decision to order a blood test for children who are one and two years old.

Colleen Bridger, director of the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District, says it does little good to screen children in areas where lead isn’t a problem.

“We probably don’t need universal lead screening, and I think your numbers bear that out," she says. "We have a number of zip codes where we have no lead – no elevated lead.”

“All blood test results are required by law to be reported to the state health department in Texas,” says Jennifer Karnik, program manager of the Blood Lead Surveillance Program with the Texas Department of State Health Services. 

“We collect this information and gather this information and put it into a database," she says. "We work tirelessly to day in and day out to clean our data."

The state's database can show communities and parents if they should be concerned about lead and if they should decide to get a blood lead test for their child, but that information is not available to the public.

The Blood Lead Surveillance Program used to release an annual report about lead hot spots in Texas. It hasn’t released a comprehensive report on lead in Texas on their website in over five years.

Karnik admits there is a delay in getting more up to date information on the state’s website. The most recent report on the site is from 2011. 

“We’re actively working to update those data as quickly as we can," Karnik says. “We migrated our data to a new system, and we’re constantly cleaning and updating. We hope to get the most up-to-date data possible on our website.”

Data broken down by counties used to be accessible to anyone. Now, the site says: “Data available by request.”

Metro Health Director Colleen Bridger says her department has also had trouble getting the breakdown on zip code-specific lead test data from the Texas Department of State Health Services.

“We have gone through some challenges getting all sorts of data from the state," she says. 

Bridger says she has received assurances that the state is committed to improving the flow of data, but as of now, there is no word on when the Texas Lead Surveillance Program will release an updated, comprehensive report on lead poisoning in the state.

David Martin Davies can be reached at dmdavies@tpr.org and on Twitter at @DavidMartinDavi