MCHD WIC’s Harrison County lead testing expands to Monongalia, Marion

With the growing popularity of a grant-funded lead-testing pilot program in Harrison County, Monongalia County Health Department’s Women, Infants and Children (MCHD WIC) will be expanding the service into Monongalia and Marion counties, to anyone 1 and older. 

Harrison County testing has been conducted for more than a year in response to higher rates of lead in the public drinking water. 

“The concern for water in Marion and Monongalia counties is not as strong, but there are still older homes or work exposures that can make exposure to lead possible,” said Jason Nguyen, a registered dietitian nutritionist at MCHD WIC. 

Some older homes still have paint on both the interior and exterior that contains lead. 

Traditionally, children have been exposed to lead by consuming paint chips or playing in the dirt outside their homes that have been contaminated with lead paint, in addition to drinking tap water that has been circulated through old pipes that haven’t been updated. Lead has also been found in paint used to decorate older bedroom furniture. 

Testing will begin Aug. 1 in Marion County  and Aug. 2 in Monongalia County, said Cami Haught, MCHD WIC program manager. 

In Harrison County, the service has been provided to WIC clients and their family members, but the expansion allows for the testing of any resident. 

“We wanted to open it up to anybody who wants a lead test,” Haught said. 

Individuals who have insurance will be billed. Those who are uninsured will be covered by a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention via the West Virginia Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program, part of the state Department of Health and Human Resources, said Heidi Staats, WIC’s state director.  

“The lead program has identified several counties as target areas based on the age of dwellings,” Staats said. “Marion County falls within the designated area, lending to the likelihood of lead paint.”  

While Monongalia County also has older homes, there has been a lot of new construction, noted Paul Hoffer, a Health and Human Service aide for MCHD WIC. But Staats said Monongalia County was added in because of its larger population. 

A fourth county, Ohio, will also conduct lead testing, with the WIC office there overseeing it beginning Monday. 

“Ohio County was chosen because of the housing in the area,” said Seth Rhodes, the childhood lead poisoning project director for the West Virginia Childhood Lead Poison Prevention Project. 

In Ohio County, 77% of public housing was built before 1978, when the Consumer Product Safety Commission banned lead-based paint, Rhodes added. 

In April 2022, regulations passed by the state Legislature mandated that children under  age  6 be tested for lead, preferably at ages 1 or 2. WIC clients include pregnant, postpartum and breastfeeding women and children up to  age  5 who qualify, so it’s easy for WIC offices to target this age group for lead testing. 

WIC has also arranged for anyone with Medicaid to get transportation to the WIC offices through the program Movidcare, Nguyen said. 

“Although we haven’t used it yet, the system appears to be user-friendly,” Nguyen added. 

Hoffer has been overseeing the lead testing in Harrison County and was able to help drive numbers up by explaining the health risks of lead poisoning to WIC participants. 

“I’ve been trying to inform our clients of the long-term effects,” he said, noting that children are affected more  than adults. “It affects development and growth in kids and can affect the IQ.”  

Hoffer’s job duties also include taking heights, weights and doing a finger stick to check hemoglobin on children. The lead test also is a finger stick  so that lab work can be added on without any additional blood draws. 

“The sooner we realize there is a problem, the sooner we can get it looked at and get the numbers down,” he said. 

In Harrison County, many of the levels have come back low. Anything that is 3.3 or lower is considered acceptable, Hoffer said. 

“Once the machine hits 5 or higher, we notify the Lead Poisoning Prevention Program in Charleston,” Hoffer said. “We also notify the child’s doctor, and a lot of doctors have them go to a hospital for a blood draw to make sure it’s accurate.”   

When a high level of lead poisoning is detected, actions to take include finding the source of the lead poisoning and removing it. For instance, phosphoric acid can be used on old pipes to create a protective film that helps reduce lead exposure. 

Other steps can include adding iron, calcium and vitamin C to the diet. 

“Those all help lower lead levels,” Hoffer said. 

To make an appointment for lead testing at a WIC office, call 304-598-5181 in Monongalia County, 304-366-2387 in Marion County and 304-848-9680 in Harrison County.  

Check out WIC eligibility guidelines at monchd.org/departments-programs/pages/wic-eligibility guidelines.