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Public health researchers developing predictive tool for household lead exposure

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. — Researchers from RTI International, a nonprofit research institute, Indiana University (IU), and North Carolina North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (NC A&T) are working with communities in Indiana and North Carolina to help test for lead in household dust, soil and water to develop a tool that can predict which residential households are at risk of lead exposure and provide actionable insights to help lower that risk.

Low levels of lead exposure can cause intellectual disabilities and behavioral disorders in children, as well as cardiovascular issues in adults. In the United States, state and local agencies typically rely on the detection of lead in children’s blood tests or the age of a home to determine which households need interventions to address environmental lead hazards.

"The current approach uses children as lead sensors; households typically are only tested after elevated levels of lead are found in a child’s blood during a visit to their pediatrician,” said Jacqueline MacDonald Gibson, study principal investigator (PI), professor, and Indiana University department of environmental and occupational health chair. “Our vision is to create a twenty-first-century approach that prevents lead exposure before it ever happens by predicting houses where lead is most likely to be a problem."

The team is asking communities in Indiana and North Carolina to help them test and improve their predictive model by signing up to collect and ship water, dust and soil samples to RTI for laboratory analysis.

“As a study team, we are passionate about finding better ways to prevent childhood lead exposure,” said co-PI Jennifer Hoponick Redmon, an alumnus of IU and a senior environmental health scientist at RTI. “When a child is in their safe space at home, they should also be safe from the neurotoxic effects of lead.”

“In the lab, we analyze lead levels down to the parts per billion level so we can really pinpoint the presence of lead in household materials,” said James Harrington, a co-PI and research chemist at RTI.

Each participant will receive personalized, confidential results along with actionable recommendations on how to decrease lead exposure, if needed. Using data on residential lead exposure risks, machine-learning techniques will be used to launch an online mapping tool that proactively identifies at-risk Indiana and North Carolina homes.

“We previously identified racial disparities in lead exposure in Greensboro households,” said Co-PI and IU alumnus Emmanuel Obeng-Gyasi of NC A&T. “This study offers the opportunity to take it a step further by including more critical variables to build accurate predictive models to help the most at risk as early as possible.”

The study is funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Partner organizations also involved with the study include the cities of Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Greensboro, North Carolina, the State of Indiana's Housing and Community Development Authority, NC Child, and NC Child, and the NC Housing Finance Agency. Selected residents in Allen, Delaware, Marion, St. Joseph and Vanderburgh counties in Indiana and Guilford County in North Carolina will receive postcards inviting them to participate in the study.

For more information and to learn about the study, visit www.cleanwaterforUSkids.org/healthyhomes.