Economics, Entitlements

DC’s mandatory blood tests for kids

Recently, the Washington Post called out the District of Columbia for its draconian policy of jailing drivers with expired tags. Sadly, this is not the only problematic DC law.

The Childhood Lead Poisoning and Screening Act of 2002 demands that every child in DC be subjected to two blood tests before age six. The law comes with a slew of regulations, and “any person” who fails to comply with it may be fined $5,000. (Whether anyone ever has been fined is unclear.) Remarkably, the DC government has also added lead testing to the health form that parents must submit when they enroll their kids in school. (The “Lead exposure risks” box is right below the “tuberculosis” box in Part 3.)

Lead paint is the primary cause of lead poisoning, and high levels of lead in a child’s blood can do serious damage to a child’s brain and vital organs. Yet DC’s policy is difficult to justify.

For one, it targets a vanishing problem—lead poisoning caused by living in homes with interiors painted with lead paint. Lead paint was banned in 1978. So, not surprisingly, lead poisoning is pretty rare today. According to the CDC, nationwide 250,000 children aged five or under have dangerous levels of lead in their blood. That’s about 1 percent of the 20+ million kids born in the United States in the past five years. Here in DC, the most recent CDC data (2006) indicate that 1.8 percent of children tested have high levels of lead in their blood. Which means that 98.2 percent of DC children tested were needlessly subjected to two blood tests.

For another, DC parents largely are flouting the law. CDC data indicate that a mere 6.4 percent of children born in DC were tested. (Other states’ compliance and poisoning rates may be found here.)

The DC council and mayor should amend this law. Forcing parents to choose between following the law and having their toddlers stuck in the inner-arm with a needle is grotesque. And driving up healthcare costs by mandating needless tests is inane.

A more sensible policy would encourage doctors to inform parents about lead poisoning, why it might be worth testing a child for it, and then leave the decision to parents.

Kevin R. Kosar is a researcher and writer in Washington, DC.

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